The importance of sleep

Many athletes do not fall asleep very easily. They then get distracted by watching TV, surfing the Internet or chatting on the phone.

Less than six hours of sleep will actually eat away your brain.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Winning and losing are part of an athlete’s life. Winning consistently is not easy. Losing always is easy if you do not have focus. This focus is derived from training, rest and nutrition. The International Olympic Committee in its sports nutrition course recommends an equal split between rest, nutrition and training. All sports seem to focus only on training. You think: increase the volume and duration of training in an hour, day, week or month. That’s the path to success as an athlete. The focus on rest is limited to the sleep time only. No additional efforts are made to enhance recovery via rest during the day. A simple nap is a quick method to get some body repair in. When I counsel athletes, I ask if they can sleep in a bus or car or at the airport or bus stop. If they can, then I say they are blessed as they make the most of the time in their lives to get some more rest. An athlete should be a sleep demon.

The younger generation finds it difficult to focus on training, sleep and nutrition. As athletes get older, they acquire maturity, better coaches and support teams that repeatedly request them to look into their diet, sleep and training. From Virat Kolhi to Lewis Hamilton becoming vegans, the focus on nutrition, sleep and training increases as athletes move towards longevity, peak performance or the inevitable: retirement.

Improvements in rest can be observed in sleep and heart rates, and positive changes can be seen within 120 days of modifications.

Research has shown that more than seven hours of sleep will help in better recovery of the human body. Less than six hours will actually eat away your brain. The biggest issue for athletes is the long training hours. When the body is significantly aroused due to high adrenaline and heart rates from an evening workout, many athletes do not fall asleep very easily. They then get distracted by watching TV, surfing the Internet or chatting on the phone, delaying sleep time into later hours. The fact of the matter is the next day’s training for most athletes starts early morning and therefore they tend to be sleep deprived. In fact, many athletes fall back on the realisation or comfort that they will get a mid-morning and mid-afternoon nap. However, the longer the night sleep, the deeper the REM (rapid eye movement) or dream cycles that take place.

Deep sleep induces faster and quicker recovery due to release of growth hormone. In fact, liver detoxification does not happen until a person crosses four hours of sleep, and the best time for this to occur is around 2am. Liver detox is crucial to lactic acid removal and healing of muscle tissue damage. This means that lights out, tucked into bed time is best at 10pm. Any later and you lose that million-dollar deal as you are not good enough to win because you do not sleep deep and long enough. At Qua Nutrition Clinics, I advise PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic frequency) therapy to induce deeper sleep and quicker recovery. Also, devices that are based on light therapy like the Retimers induce better sleep cycles in jetlagged athletes who cross time zones to compete.

From a nutritional perspective, I suggest the removal of branched chain amino acids and whey protein post 7pm. Vitamins and minerals for many people serve to wake the body up with extra energy. It is definitely not a good idea to be dosing up on these just before bed. Tryptophan, melatonin and theanine are great amino acids that help induce sleep. Finding them in products like cranberries, tart cherries, walnuts and pineapple help create an internal blood chemistry environment in the brain that stimulates quicker and deeper sleep.

The second most indicative area for an athlete to track progress is heart rate. Every athlete that works with me is asked to track their heart rate on waking up. These days, all athletes have smartwatches that are able to track their sleep and wake cycles along with heart rate. I also recommend a traditional device used in hospitals called an Oximeter. These measure your oxygen saturation levels and your heart rate. It is clipped onto your finger as soon as you wake or any time of the day to measure your heart rate.

The reason I track a client’s heart rate is to determine whether they have slept well, have recovered well and that they are ready to face the next day.

Say an athlete has a resting heart rate of 50-55 every day when they wake up. On a certain day it spikes to 67. My questions to the athlete are:

1. Did you sleep on time? Did you get eight hours of sleep?

2. Did you strain yourself yesterday?

3. Did you overeat or not eat properly yesterday?

4. Are you feeling sick?

5. Did you hydrate properly?

6. Did you drink too much coffee yesterday?

7. Did you fight with a loved one?

8. Did you travel yesterday?

9. Did you watch Netflix past midnight?

10. Are you stressed?

All of these questions lead to the answers on why the athlete is having an elevated heart rate. Its simple; do this yourself. Check your heart rate every day and then come to its average. I personally do this myself as a nutritionist since I work out and many a times watch TV late into the night to unwind only to find the next day that my heart rate is too high. I feel miserable the next day interacting with people due to a lack of sleep. I now use an app called Dozee that tracks my heart rate, my snoring, my movements and how deep or restless my sleep is. This is crucial in heart rate and sleep betterment.

Every coach says sleep is important. Sleep more, sleep early, don’t watch TV, and don’t chat on the phone. Giving real time data in my opinion is the best behavioural modification tool I have been using over the last few years. Don’t tell the athletes; show the athletes.

I was recently asked: so what if I sleep less and have a high heart rate. Science says the higher the heart rate, greater is the cortisol, a stress hormone, that is released, which causes more sugar consumption, which effects the dynamics of calorie use in the body. The body if stressed begins to store more fat and says it’s time for you to become unfit. That’s the start of a downhill journey towards becoming an average athlete. Average does not win.

Athletes looking to better their recovery can email me for a free list of foods and devices that can help you sleep better at ryan@quanutrition.com.