The importance of sleep

It’s probably no surprise to most that sleep is imperative for maintaining good health. It also plays a hugely important part in fitness, and ensuring you get the maximum yield out of your workouts.

 

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, recently said to The Guardian that "sleep should be prescribed". Sleep deprivation, according to him, ca  be labelled a health crisis epidemic, increasing our risk of cancer, heart attack and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. And he’s absolutely right.

 

This certainly means that sleep has massive impact on your recovery after exercise. A lot of types of exercise essentially breaks down your muscles, with your body then left with the task to build them back up again. For a lot people, the goal will be to have the muscles built back up stronger, bigger and filled with more endurance and power than before. Alongside essential macronutrients (such as protein, of course) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), sleep plays a vital role in that, as most of the rebuilding of your muscles takes place during sleep.

 

There are five different types of sleep stages, with your body moving through each throughout the night and with each of them playing its important part in the overall sleep process. REM sleep, for instance, is important in learning, memory and mood, and studies also show that lack of it is linked to increased pain sensitivity levels. This means that if you for some reason don’t get the sufficient amounts of REM sleep one night, exercise might feel even harder than usual the following day. Deep sleep, on the other hand, is amongst other things when human growth hormone is released and helps promote cell repair that is necessary after - yep, you guessed it - training!

 

Sleep deprivation, according to Matthew Walker, is anything less than 7 hours. We’re all different from one another, but for those of us following gruelling training programmes those 7 hours are definitely essential. I always aim for 8 hours of sleep, which according to my Fitbit tracker means 9 hours in bed as at least 1 hour overall is spent awake. Waking up several times throughout the night is totally normal, but a lot of these wake-up periods are so short that we don’t even remember them. 9 hours in bed probably sounds like a lot, but I am as strict with my bedtime as I am with my workout routines, as I realise how essential sleep is to my own health, recovery and wellbeing.

 

While there isn’t much you can do directly in relation to the amount you get of each sleep cycle each night, there are several renowned bits of good advice that help promote better sleep. I’ve gathered the most important ones, also according to my own experience:

  • Keep the bedroom for sleeping and reading (and well, one other activity). This means avoiding doing any form of work in your bedroom if you can, and I would also suggest avoiding watching TV / Netflix / etc in the bedroom too. New technologies, such as Night Shift, do help in eliminating the bright blue light form laptops, phones and TVs that can interfere with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, but there's potentially still enough blue light to stimulate your brain

  • Avoid excessive phone use before bed. Ideally, set your alarm if you need to and then put your phone away an hour before it’s time to sleep

  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark. Dim the lights down a couple of hours before bedtime if possible, as it will help signal to your brain it’s time to sleep

  • Stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time every day if you can. At weekends it will help you if you don’t deviate too much from this schedule, though an hour’s extra lie-in on a Sunday morning probably won’t hurt!

  • Avoid any drinks containing caffeine after 4pm at the latest

  • Avoid alcohol before bed. It may help you fall asleep faster but it leads to broken and poor-quality sleep

  • Reading helps relax your brain. I suggest going for something a bit ‘dry’ and factual that interests you, or any type of fiction you would find relaxing to read

  • It’s an obvious one, but nice and comfortable bedding and pillows is important. Choose wisely according to what position(s) you prefer sleeping in, the climate and your own body temperature

  • Eating a heavy meal within the 2 hours before going to bed is a bad idea. Stick to your casein protein shake, but mix it with smaller amounts of liquid to avoid having to get up to use the bathroom during the night. Tip: Mix your casein protein shake with low-sugar oat milk. It’s almost like having a cup of hot chocolate before bed!

 

It’s important to add that if you are going through a period of bad sleep, stressing about it and making yourself agitated will only make matters worse. I know this all too well! Practicing mindfulness and finding ways to unwind and taking the pressure off in relation to getting enough sleep will help, as will following the advice above.

 

In an ideal world, good bedtime habits should become daily routine for most. Not only will getting enough shut-eye in help you recover after exercise, and give you the energy to keep up with your fitness programme, but it will lift your mood and general well-being in helping your body and mind function at optimal levels. It will help stave off certain diseases and infections, and ensure the regeneration that is necessary for our survival.