The Essential Role of Sleep in Enhancing Your Fitness
You've been diligently sticking to your exercise routine, carefully choosing the right foods, and meticulously tracking your calorie intake. Yet, despite your best efforts, you constantly feel exhausted, unmotivated, and frustrated by the slow progress of your fitness journey.
These could be signs that you might be lacking the most critical area of fitness— sleep.
Sleep plays a vital yet often overlooked role in fitness and athletic performance. We work out to improve our health, endurance, physique, and more. However, all of these goals require sleep to be effective.
This article will discuss the science behind sleep and recovery and how you can optimize your sleep to improve your fitness, health, and athletic performance.
Sleep is the unique mechanism of your body to initiate and speed up recovery. During different sleep stages, your body undergoes significant restoration and release of hormones to promote muscle repair and growth.
During light sleep, the first stage of the sleep cycle, your body releases growth hormones, which are the prime driver for muscle growth and repairing damaged cells.
Your body also recovers mentally from stress, consolidates memories, and enhances learning during the depth of your sleep. This also involves storing and programming information in the brain, including the complex movement patterns you learn from training and sports.
Nutrition, exercise, and sleep are the foundation of fitness. These 3 factors affect each other and go a full circle.
What you eat also impacts your sleep quality and duration. For example, a diet with excessive calories or high in fat can lead to sleep difficulty and disruption of your normal sleeping pattern.
Exercise influences all the systems in the body, and it is one of the most effective and cost-efficient curative and preventive medicine known to humans.
In sleep health, vigorous exercise can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and decrease the time you lie awake at night.
Routine exercise can optimize your brain waves at night and give you a restful and meaningful slumber. Thereby reducing the risk of sleep conditions such as insomnia and sleep apnea.
Sleep improves muscle recovery between workouts and supercharges your body with enough energy to perform at your peak level during physical activities. Conversely, insufficient sleep can lead to injuries and reduced muscle strength during exercises.
On average, most adults don't get the optimal hours of sleep each night. Studies show that people who get fewer than 7 hours of sleep are at risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.
In addition, sleep deprivation can have severe consequences on athletic performance.
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can lead to a 20-30% decrease in reaction time and a 3-15% reduction in peak muscle strength.
Lack of sleep has also been linked to decreased volume tolerance– or the ability to lift weights for a sustained amount of time or reps.
These negative effects can be the deciding factor between winning or losing a competitive sport or effectively progressing your fitness journey.
Research indicates that getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night increases the risk of injury by up to 1.7 times compared to those who sleep for at least eight hours.
Lack of sleep can lead to agitation and aggressive behaviors, impacting your mindset during sports and other physical activities.
Sleep-deprived people may have impaired brain function that could affect judgment and decision-making during athletic performance.
Lack of sleep can also be the reason for the strength and weight loss plateau. Our body recognizes the disturbance or inadequate sleep as a threat and fights for survival. The body releases stress hormones for the fight-or-flight response, so our body tries to conserve more energy and store fat instead.
When we don't get enough sleep, our bodies produce higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone responsible for stimulating appetite, while simultaneously decreasing the levels of leptin, the hormone responsible for inducing feelings of fullness. This hormonal imbalance can lead to stress eating and severe weight fluctuations.
In contrast, a consistent sleep schedule can help maintain hormonal balance, promoting healthier eating habits and contributing to overall well-being.
Interestingly, data shows that even Olympic-level athletes are also susceptible to poor sleeping habits and often get less than the 8-hour recommended dose of sleep.
This is due to their rigorous training schedules, travel obligations, and changes in time zones. Furthermore, the stress and anxiety before an upcoming match may also impair healthy sleep, thus affecting athletic performance.
Recent studies have found that extending your sleep for another 2 hours (with the goal of up to 9 hours) can help you improve mental performance and overcome the effects of sleep deprivation following a night of inadequate sleep.
Here are the most effective tips to improve your sleep quality and enhance your fitness:
Establishing a consistent sleep schedule can help regulate your body's internal clock and make it easier to fall asleep and wake up refreshed. It is recommended to sleep and wake up at the same time each day and establish the same evening routine before bed to condition your mind and body.
Your bedroom should be the most relaxing place in your home. It should be where your body and mind find peace from everyday stress. Make your bedroom comfortable by keeping it cool, dark, and quiet.
It is recommended to avoid screens for at least 2 hours before bed and mute all your devices.
Exposure to blue lights from phones, computers, and TV screens can suppress the natural production of melatonin, the body's sleep hormone.
Here’s a plan you should try:
Relaxation and breathing techniques can help you relax your muscles and prepare your mind for good slumber. Slow breathing techniques and other meditation practices can help you calm your thoughts and unload negative or stimulating ideas you have.
A 30-minute to one-hour moderate-intensity exercise daily can help improve sleep quality by decreasing the risk of waking up in the middle of the night and increasing your sleep duration.
Try to avoid working out too close to bedtime, and consider outdoor exercise in the morning, as the Vitamin D from the sun helps with sleep regulation and decreases the risk of sleep disorders.
Consider the evening as your body's time to slow down and prepare for rest. Opt for lighter meals that are easier to digest, and try to limit caffeinated beverages to the early part of the day.
Instead, choose calming herbal teas, such as chamomile or valerian, to help you relax before bedtime. In addition, high-protein meals at night can also improve sleep quality and enhance muscle growth.
Sleep science is constantly evolving, and newer information is being discovered daily. For example, neuroscientists have recently found that you can get the benefits of sleeping without falling asleep. They called this Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR).
NSDR is like the next level powernap. During this state, your brain waves slow down and mimic the brain activities when you are asleep. In fact, a 20-minute NSDR is enough to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to induce restorative relaxation and stimulate the release of growth hormones.
Aside from mimicking the therapeutic benefits of sleep, NSDR may also enhance sleep quality.
You can experience NSDR by practicing guided meditation through Yoga Nidra (Yogic sleep) or hypnosis. The key is to be in a state of heightened focus and calmness.
Whether you want to lose weight, build muscles, or gain strength, sleep is an essential core of fitness that you shouldn't neglect.
By understanding the science behind sleep and recovery, implementing strategies to improve sleep quality, and prioritizing rest in your fitness journey, you can maximize your fitness potential and ensure a steady and safe progression in your fitness journey.