Sleep is as normal a part of life as breathing. Regardless of our individual differences, sleep is something all humans need. In addition to giving us an opportunity to rest and recharge, sleep is a critical time for the body to repair and regulate itself.
So, then, what happens when we struggle to sleep? How does it affect our body? And, most importantly (this is a gym blog, after all), does it really have that big of an effect on exercise?
Though why humans sleep is still a source of debate, there are several benefits of getting a full night’s sleep. Quality sleep has been shown to improve mood, promote cardiac health, regulate blood sugar and immune system quality, and help with athletic recovery and weight loss, among other benefits.
During sleep, the body produces a variety of hormones. For example, the growth hormones the body produces during sleep help repair soft tissues and contribute to muscle growth.
Another hormone, called leptin, acts as an appetite suppressor and limits the production of the hormone ghrelin, which is an appetite stimulant. However, on a night with too-little sleep, leptin production slows while ghrelin production increases. Thus, if the body is not getting enough sleep, there is usually a greater feeling of hunger and soreness due to the body not being able to produce as many hormones during rest.
In short, sleep is not only important for maintaining a good quality of life, but it is essential for a successful training program. Though most people know and employ this, there are still nights when sleep seems elusive. Barring a diagnosed sleep condition, there are some steps that can be taken to promote good sleep, including:
Creating a consistent sleep schedule: this helps regulate the body’s internal clock and experts suggest going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends.
Limit naps: try to limit naps to 20-30 minutes and avoid napping in the afternoon/early evening.
Make a quality sleep environment: try to make your sleep environment a relaxing place. Some people prefer black-out curtains, limiting noises, using a white noise machine, etc.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol close to bedtime: caffeine and nicotine act as stimulants, and alcohol, though not a stimulant, can cause lighter and lower-quality sleep.
Avoid screen time before bed: electronic screens emit blue light and can disrupt the body’s natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep.
As coaches, we want all of our athletes to be successful in their training. One crucial aspect of successful training AND recovery is sleep. Lack of sleep can disrupt many of the body’s natural processes and diminish mental capacity. Think of a time you had a crummy night’s sleep; the next day you may have experienced irritability, perhaps made some silly mistakes at work, or just feel “off”. This is the result of the body not being able to fully recover during sleep.
A common question we have been asked is,
“Should I still come and work out if I haven’t been sleeping well?”
It depends. Exercise during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at night and consistent exercise is often associated with better sleep quality. However, if sleep has been consistently elusive, athletes may find themselves struggling cognitively with understanding directions or feeling fatigued much more quicker.
Ultimately, it’s up to the athlete to determine what their body needs more: rest or training. We encourage our athletes to listen to their bodies and take whatever course of action is best for them as individuals. Giving the body what it needs, whether it be extra sleep or training, will ultimately lead to an overall healthier lifestyle.