When it comes to losing weight or building muscle, your success is made up of getting 3 main factors right. These are your training, nutrition and recovery. Most people tend to get 2 out of 3 right which can limit their success, with the importance of recovery being the most overlooked. Recovery is related to your training frequency and the quantity and quality of sleep you have.
Why is sleep important?
Thinking of this purely from the perspective of training goals, your body recovers and repairs itself during sleep, but there is a lot more to it than you might think. During the different stages of your sleep cycle, your body releases different hormones that affect your rate of growth and your ability to burn fat. The two most obvious ones to consider are Growth Hormone and Testosterone. Growth hormone is released during stages 3 and 4 of your sleep cycle which are important for growth and development. You should all know the importance of Testosterone for growth and fat loss, and your body ramps up production levels of this hormone during sleep. If you aren’t getting the right amount of sleep for your body to repair and grow, you are cheating yourself out of the results you’ve worked so hard for in the gym and the kitchen.
However there are other hormones released during sleep such as Grehlin and Leptin which can be very important to your goals. Why? Because they play a vital role in our feelings of hunger and satiety, so help us balance our appetites. If you don’t have enough sleep, or your sleep quality is poor, you are more likely to over eat as result which will ultimately lead to unwanted fat gain.
Quantity and quality
In order to get the best recovery it’s important to not only get the right amount of sleep, but also the right quality. It is recommended that adults get 7-8 hours per night, and although you can get by on slightly less, most successful athletes will recommend at least hitting the 8 hour mark.
In terms of quality, this should be 7-8 hours of deep and undisturbed sleep. If you can make it through the night without being woken, or having periods of restlessness or stress, you will be getting the most benefit.
10 ways to improve your sleep quality
- Get a routine. Our bodies are designed to work to schedule, so where possible try to go to bed and get up at the same every morning. This will set your internal body clock, which well help you fall to sleep quicker as well as wake up easier in the morning.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. If you’re a big tea or coffee drinker, it’s a good idea to keep these reserved for the morning and early afternoon. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that can still affect you later in the day. Other sources of caffeine include energy drinks, sodas and even some pain killers. Note that tobacco is also a stimulant.
- Exercise early. Exercise can be great for helping you get a good nights sleep, but if you train in the evening it can make it difficult to sleep. The main reason for this is the release of cortisol, a hormone released during training, which activates alertness in the brain.
- Unwind. Maybe easier said than done, but try to avoid thinking about stressful events of the day or work in bed. Use the evening to do something to help you unwind and relax before bed. If you know you have a big day tomorrow, make a list of things you need to do before you go to bed. You can then try and relax in the knowledge that you’ve already addressed what needs to be done.
- Don’t drink. Alcohol can disrupt sleep despite what you might think, however you should try and limit consumption of most fluids before bed. Waking up because you need to go to the bathroom is going to interrupt your sleep cycle.
- Switch off. As well as switching off psychologically, switch off your phones, tablets, PCs TVs etc. As well as being a distraction that can result in you going to bed later, the blue light emitted from these devices can interfere with sleep. Blue light sends a signal to our brains to stop releasing melatonin and start raising cortisol levels that activates alertness.
- Black out. Sleeping in a completely blacked out room away from any light sources can improve your sleep quality. You can get a very cost effective blackout blind which goes over your window, or some simple drapes. These are great in summer or if you live near a street light, or have an annoying neighbour with a bright security light!
- Get comfy. Make the bedroom a nice relaxing place you want to be in. Fresh sheets, a comfortable mattress and the right pillow is a good start. Consider any allergies you might have and if you need any special requirements or hypoallergenic bedding. Keep the bedroom a nice cool temperature, and consider some natural scents such as lavender that can help you call asleep faster.
- Make the bedroom exclusive. This means only using the bedroom for sleeping and making babies, and you will start to get into the right mindset when you enter the room. If you start working in your bedroom, or watching TV you will lose this association with the bedroom and sleep.
- Take supplements. ZMA is a good supplement to take before bed as it contains magnesium, which is important for sleep quality. Melatonin is often recommended, but is only available in the UK by prescription as a short-term treatment for insomnia in people aged 55 or older. Be cautious about taking any natural or holistic remedies, and speak to health professional first.
Hopefully this list will help give you some ideas on how you can improve your own sleep quality. There are many apps available for your smartphone that can help monitor your sleep to record your sleep quality. There are also products such as the Fitbit, a wearable tech device that goes over your wrist to help monitor your sleep as well as activity during the day.