Could sleep be the answer to… better race performance?

Lucy Lloyd-Roach Think differently

This week, we’re looking at the effect that sleep has on swimmers/Triathletes that have goals with a performance focus such as improving their times from the previous season or stepping up to a new distance.

As before, please note: our posts are about getting you to ‘think differently’ about your sleep and how this could help you perform better. For ‘how to do it’ we’d say to check out our references, and what the professionals say, in order to work out the best solution for you because everyone is different.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of people who are looking to get that extra edge. I’m sure that you can think of a couple of people that you train with. It’s also all over the news and social media, there is wearable technology, the latest green smoothie, eating clean, DNA training, the fastest ever racing suit, the lightest bike frame and the list goes on! As our performance level increases, so does the amount of money we invest in finding increasingly smaller (but significant) gains in performance e.g. for well over a decade, I’ve been happy if I get a PB by a tenth of a second! There seems to be a strong motivational force in each of us that means we want to keep improving our times, finding that little bit extra, and challenging ourselves in a different ways.

As athletes, we often share personality traits and skills learned from our sport that often allows us to flourish in other areas of our lives. What if I was to say that potentially what could help you perform better in swimming/triathlon could also help with the other areas of your life too? What makes it even better, is that it’s free solution; SLEEP!

Sleep, is starting to be taken more seriously in professional sport, and what happens in professional sport soon filters down to amateur athletes too. An example of this is how top football clubs apparently have sleep pods at training grounds in order to help athletes recover between sessions and matches (see this Guardian article for more information).

As driven and successful people, sleep is often the first thing that is sacrificed in order to keep the commitments in other areas of our lives e.g. we’ll get up before work to go for a run/swim/cycle. This is especially true when you are a triathlete and have to find time to fit 3 sports in (I find one is hard enough)! One notable example is of a friend who regularly gets up to train at 4.30am!

If we’re sacrificing our sleep in this way, this deficit may ironically be reducing the benefit we can get from our training sessions! As it will effect the quality of our training sessions, our motivation to do them and how we recover from them! In our first blog, we looked at how sleep may help you stick to your goals and resolutions discussing how sleep deprivation has a number of effects that combine together to reduce your ability to do this. See the table below for a couple of these examples and how this may affect your training and race potential.

Sleep deprivation effect Effect on training
Reliance on use of habits This means the brain goes back to its default because it’s easier. If you’re re-developing your technique, this may be going back the habit that you’re wishing to correct rather than the new one you want to create. Thus impacting how efficiently you learn the adjustments
Increases reaction time i.e. slower to react to things This in turn affects how quickly you react to changing circumstances in a race or your reaction from the gun
Motivation/will power Keep us going during those dark moments in training, keep us going training (and consistency is so important when improving your fitness/working on technique), keep us digging deep in a race.
Cognitive function When we’re tired, it effects how the brain extracts glucose from the blood stream, something Wiseman (2014) describes as meaning that ‘we literally can’t think straight’.
Planning/indecision These may show themselves as sticking to a training regime; planning food; planning sleep; decisions making on race day.
Physical power Sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce the amount of power we can produce (Mah et al 2011)
Lower levels at which a stress response is triggered When the body is stressed, this effects recovery time. Think what happens to your body when it gets run down.

If we’re feeling stressed often this affects our ability to train too, and sometimes the lure of other things, such as the sofa, may win us over!

I wonder if this could impact on our optimal arousal levels for competition?

Gross and fine motor skills This is often shown in clumsiness, falling over feet, tripping out of transition,

Then ironically, the coping strategies we often use to help us with sleep deprivation e.g caffeine, often ending up reducing the quality of sleep we have when we do fall asleep, even if we’re unaware of it, which can then go on to compound the above (Drake et al).

Interestingly, there have been studies that have shown that sleep optimisation i.e. getting more sleep then you need improves performance significantly.

Mah et al (2008), conducted an interesting experiment into sleep optimisation,. They took a group of Collegiate swimmers and for 6-7 weeks extended the amount of sleep that the swimmers got to 10 hours a day. The improvement in baseline measurements were significant! After the 6-7 weeks of obtaining extra sleep, the average results from the athletes included, improving their 15-meter meter sprints by 0.51 seconds, reacting 0.15 seconds quicker off the blocks, and improving turn time by 0.10 seconds! That’s a big difference over a pool based race! If you were doing a 400m time trial from a push just with the improved turns results alone, you could knock off 1.5 seconds! a 1500m swim becomes nearly a 6 second improvement!

Whilst these results make for incredible reading, I don’t think I could fit 10 hours sleep into everyday life on a regular basis! Mah et al recognise this and instead have a number of suggestions (click here for more information) such as topping up sleep with naps and making sure that you think about sleep as part of your training routine. The most interesting to me is to increase the amount of sleep in the run-up to a big event, which in my mind sounds a bit like a sleep taper! I think this is the one that I’m going to think about in the lead up to my next big event.

Perhaps some of the improvements shown in the Mah et al (2008) study were to do with reducing the sleep debt and effects of sleep deprivation that these athletes had. Perhaps some was to do with the replenishing nature of sleep. Sleep has been shown to aid recovery. The early stages of sleep help you to relax your muscles and then during the later stages, growth hormone is produced which helps to repair damaged tissues (which is essentially what we do to our muscles when we train, we damage them, and then when the body repairs them, they are stronger). Mah talks about the merits of topping up sleep with naps and Wiseman (2014) cites that growth hormone is released during naps of 20-90 minutes in length.

In our second blog we talked about how sleep can help you when you’re learning new skills. As we look for ways in which to improve our performance: one of these is naturally improving technique. As you can see from our discussion in our second blog, if you improve your quality of sleep then this in turn is going to help with your skill acquisition. The quicker you relearn or learn a skill, the more time you’ve got to get used to it before your race, the more confidence you’ll have in them, which frees up mental space for other important aspects of race day such as thinking about tactics, or relaxing pre-race.

You might be thinking, ‘this is all very interesting, but I don’t have time to take sleep longer at night or for a nap’, and I thought the same thing!

I thought that I would try it for 6 weeks (as a rough rule of thumb says that is how long it takes to form a habit) and then re-examine the effect it has. What I found is that 30 minutes sleep/meditation/time out in between work and training means that I have more focus and clarity afterwards. In the past I would come home, attempt to switch my mind off by watching TV for 30-45 mins and then still feel tired afterwards and then attempt to push through the tiredness, which makes everything seem more effortful. However, I have come to realise that this doesn’t give the mind the time out it needs to process things and recover. It’s still early days, but after a month, I have been won over! I feel like I have more energy, more motivation, and the clock is indicating that I’m training better too.

As you can see, sleep can help you train better, e.g. the motivation to train, the ability to train harder, and to recover better, which may result in you being more consistent in training. Consistent and optimal preparation, will lead to improved race performance. If that wasn’t good enough, we have also briefly discussed how it could lead to better performance on race day too! And with all that talk about sleep… I think it’s power nap time!

References/further reading: