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The Importance of Sleep for Bodybuilders and Athletes

Ashleigh Atkinson, MHK

Is sleep the missing piece of the puzzle to attaining your ideal physique?

Ask anyone who works hard on their physique about their diet and training regime and they can give you every last detail: macro counts, current squat weight, training split, even their body weight and how many pounds they are away from their goal. However, ask them how much sleep they average each night, and the response will likely be a vacant stare or a look of confusion. When you put so much effort into the other details of your fitness life, don’t short-change yourself on this one critical factor.

Sleep may not be as fun and flashy as food or training. It isn’t bragged about, and it definitely doesn’t get posted on social media to gain more followers. Yet, it has the power to greatly impact your health and physique—probably in more ways than you’re aware. If you’re looking for any form of physical improvement, it’s time to stop overlooking this factor and get your beauty sleep.

Zombie Society

We’ve all dealt with days when we didn’t get enough sleep or just got a bad night’s sleep. The following day or two can be pretty miserable as the body deals with hormones that are out of whack. It’s recommended that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 get from seven to nine hours of sleep each night. However, with only 25 percent of Canadian adults meeting that recommendation, we’re a sleep-deprived society running on fumes.

One of the problems is that sleep is a very individual concept, which is why a range of hours is provided. Everyone will feel their best with a different amount. Some adults may function perfectly well with six hours, while others can barely get through a day with that amount. It can also go the other way; some people require a solid eight hours, which can leave others feeling groggy, having overslept. Also consider that just because your partner needs nine hours doesn’t mean that’s what you need, so different wake-up times may be required in a relationship. No matter the situation, it takes a little trial and error to find your optimal amount of sleep.

Unfortunately, the attitude of sleep being for the weak has been spread through social media channels. The abundance of social media celebrities advocating the notion of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” and pushing the idea that you need to work 20 hours a day or more to be successful has added fuel to the fire. Although some people may function well on less sleep, the average person’s mental capabilities will suffer, especially their ability to focus, recall information, and make sound decisions. Physically, being fatigued will cause you to drag through the day and leave you lacking the energy and desire to train.

Sleep 101

On the surface, sleep seems like a pretty simple concept—we close our eyes and our body relaxes so we wake up feeling refreshed. However, while we sleep, the body is busy performing several different functions to ensure we’re primed and ready for another successful day.

Science is still researching everything that happens while we sleep, but we do know some basics about what controls our sleep behaviours, as well as the different stages of sleep. With this knowledge, you can make some lifestyle changes to take control of your sleep habits to maximize your physical progress. Sleep hard to train hard!

Understanding Sleep

Our sleep-wake cycle is controlled by our circadian rhythm. This 24-hour cycle dictates basic functions such as eating and sleeping patterns with the rise and fall of certain hormones. Within the body, the circadian rhythm is controlled by your brain’s hypothalamus. External factors, such as exposure to light and dark, send messages to your brain about how to react, which triggers the release of hormones. This rhythm works best when you stay on top of your sleep and keep a normal schedule. Situations such as staying up later than normal, jet lag, and even daylight savings time can throw this process out of whack, along with your energy, strength, and desire to work out.

Two main hormones are tied to our sleep-wake processes: melatonin and cortisol. Melatonin is the most well-known hormone when it comes to sleep. It’s released by the pineal gland as the brain senses darkness, making you feel less alert as levels rise in the blood. The trigger of light is important; this can be natural light, which complements the circadian rhythm, but things such as blue light and bright indoor lights can delay the release of melatonin, delaying your desire to sleep.

If you find that your circadian rhythm is off track, or you’re having consistent problems falling asleep, supplementing with melatonin can help. Taking a dose of this hormone prior to bedtime helps to boost the levels in the body, prompting the signal of tiredness. As melatonin isn’t a sleep aid, supplementing with it is safe and non-habit forming. It’s best to check with your physician before taking it to ensure it’s advisable for you.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands and is known to be energizing. Its healthy cycle sees it naturally spiking in the morning, to help us wake up, and lowering at night. Mental and physical stress, such as training, trigger cortisol to be released in the body. Issues with cortisol and sleep arise when chronic stress keeps cortisol levels elevated, hindering the body’s ability to relax enough to sleep at night.

Sleeping for Gains

Among everything you focus on to build a solid physique, sleep needs to be on your list. Our muscles are only able to repair themselves and grow when we rest them, meaning a break from training as well as adequate sleep. While we sleep, the body is hard at work rebuilding and replenishing what was used through the day, at a cellular level. Skipping out on your sleep halts these processes, essentially digging your body into a hole it desperately wants to get out of.

During sleep, the body stores glucose in the muscles as muscle glycogen. This will be used the following day for energy, fueling your training session and daily life tasks. If sleep is lacking, the body has less time to replenish these stores, leaving you with less energy to tax your muscles in the gym and to hit PRs.

Another key component for muscle growth is the release of human growth hormone, which spikes while we sleep. This hormone is critical for muscle recovery and growth. Don’t think you can get away with a short catnap, either. Growth hormone release peaks during REM sleep, meaning that you need to put in many hours of sleep to get the full benefit of this hormone. As you reach more REM stages throughout the night, they get longer, resulting in more physical benefits for you.

Not only does sleep aid in muscle growth, but it also protects against muscle loss. When you’re sleep deprived, the body is stressed and needs to work overtime to survive. The bottom line with the body is that it’s a machine focused on survival, not aesthetics. Muscle mass requires more energy to support, and during stressful times (such as when you’re overly tired), the body wants to conserve its energy for more important aspects. This can lead the body to become a catabolic environment, turning to the muscle cells as a source of energy. This can be a circular problem, where being more tired increases stress, and being stressed hinders sleep. Getting to the root of your stress and dealing with it is the best approach. Remember, a tired body is a stressed body, and a stressed body is catabolic—something we never want.

Focused on PRs

If you’re more focused on performance than aesthetics, sleep is still your best ally. Optimal performance in the gym requires you to be both mentally and physically prepared. Even small amounts of sleep deprivation can start to hinder you. Energy levels drop, your ability to stay focused on your workout is impaired, and your coordination can decline, which can increase your risk of injury.

Strength-based athletes who skimp on their sleep will quickly notice declines in their performance. The muscles can reach failure faster, and your grip strength may not be what it normally is. Not only is sleep important for regular training sessions, but leading into a competition, it’s even more critical. Competitions can cause an increase in adrenaline and cortisol, which a lack of sleep can exacerbate. When gearing up for a major meet, prioritize your sleep to keep your hormones in balance and your body functioning at its peak.

Keep in mind that as you increase your output, your need for recovery is going to be higher. Although your performance won’t suffer after a single night of poor (or less) sleep, consecutive nights will quickly add up. If you start to experience drops in your performance, listen to your body and consider taking extra rest days along with improving your sleep habits.

Training, Health, and Sleep

When your health suffers, your training suffers—that’s a pretty simple concept. When sleep is lacking, the immune system is weakened, increasing the odds of getting sick. Still hitting the gym hard even though you’re lacking sleep? Consider the exposure to germs present in the gym and the physical stress induced by training, coupled with a tired immune system, and you’re basically asking to get sick. Stay home, get your rest, and then hit the gym hard when your body is strong.

Five Tips to Sleep Well

Poor sleep habits can easily become a vicious cycle. For example, energy levels suffer from lack of sleep, so we turn to stimulants as a band-aid. The use of stimulants can then hinder sleep, perpetuating the issue day after day. Is it possible to get back on track so we feel our best? Definitely. It may take time to change some habits, but your health and physique are worth it.

Sleep hygiene is the set of behaviour and environmental practices you can do to improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Priming the body and mind for sleep, and setting up the perfect environment can greatly improve your sleep quality. With good quantity and quality of sleep comes improved performance, physique development, and health. These five tips are a great starting point.

Power down. Research has found that the blue light emitted by electronics has the power to alter our hormonal balance, specifically melatonin. Exposure to these lights close to bedtime keeps the pineal gland turned off, and melatonin levels stay low. Without a rise in this hormone, the body doesn’t get the signal to start slowing down for sleep.

Keep it cool and dark. Make your bedroom the perfect place for sleep by ensuring the temperature is cool. Keeping your room between 15.5 and 19.5 degrees Celsius is optimal, as it allows your body to continue reaching REM stages of sleep. While you’re at it, make sure your room is as dark as possible, as light is stimulating and alters melatonin. Even small amounts of light, such as those from digital clocks and cell phone displays, can impact your sleep cycle.

Stay calm. Mental stress keeps the brain active, making it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Avoid things that can spike your stress levels before bed, such as reading work-related emails. Find a relaxing activity you enjoy doing in the evenings, whether that’s having a bath, reading a book, or five minutes of deep breathing. For some, it may just be the simple act of preparing for the following day, whether that’s packing meals or getting your gym bag ready to go.

Be consistent. The best approach to sleep is to set a schedule that works for you every day of the week. Although it may shift by an hour or two on the weekend, you shouldn’t make drastic changes to your sleep schedule. If you need to be up at 6 a.m. for work, sleeping in until 10 a.m. on the weekends is going to make it much more difficult come Monday morning. Make a point to keep not only your sleep and wake times similar but also the number of hours of sleep you get each night.

Cut the caffeine. Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you to cut out caffeine completely. But you should cut it off in the late afternoon so your body can relax enough to sleep. Caffeine is a stimulant that works to increase alertness and has been found to work against neurotransmitters that promote sleep. Caffeine can stay in your bloodstream for six to eight hours, making it difficult to calm down before bed. Caffeine affects everyone differently, and some people are more sensitive than others. Those who are more sensitive will feel the effects for longer. As you cut back on your caffeine, you can try gradually switch over to decaf if you find yourself having withdrawal symptoms.

Get your beauty sleep. The body moves through its 24-hour rhythm naturally, which includes a daily block of sleep. Adults should aim for seven to nine hours per night to allow their bodies the time they need to reset. Not only does your general health require you to sleep, but your physical performance and physique will thrive when you’re adequately rested. Those who train regularly may require more sleep and should prioritize it along with their diet and training plans. Otherwise, you’re missing a key piece of the puzzle.

The Stages of Sleep

There are two types of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM, which make up a total of four stages of sleep. You cycle through all the stages several times each night.

Stage 1 (non-REM) is the short transition between being awake and asleep. Your muscles relax, and your heart rate, breathing, and brain activity slow down.

Stage 2 (non-REM) is light sleep in which your body continues to relax, but the brain shows quick bursts of activity. As you go through multiple sleep cycles, most of your sleep is spent in Stage 2.

Stage 3 (non-REM) is the deep sleep your body needs to feel energized. Your heart rate, breathing and brain waves reach their lowest level, and it’s hard to be woken up.

REM sleep is when your body and brain are most active, but the muscles in your arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed. Your eyes move rapidly, and brain activity is similar to when you’re awake. You first reach REM sleep about 90 minutes after falling asleep, and it lasts around an hour. The average adult goes through five or six REM phases a night. This stage is when the body does most of its rebalancing of hormones and rebuilding.

Should You Train in the Morning or at Night?

Some people thrive early in the morning, while others are self-proclaimed night owls. Hormonally, cortisol levels are highest in the morning, making this a great time to hit the gym. However, for some people, their schedule won’t allow for a morning gym session, so they need to go in the evening. If this is your usual gym time, do your best to finish your workout a couple of hours before you head to bed so your body and mind have time to wind down for sleep. The bottom line is that you need to make your training session fit seamlessly into your day, whenever that may be. Just do yourself a favour and monitor how you feel, any changes in your performance, and if your sleep patterns are changing. If so, try switching up your training time to see if it helps.

Myth or Fact? All sleep is good sleep.

MYTH. If you’re in bed tossing and turning, or if you find yourself waking up several times throughout the night, your body isn’t able to benefit from sleep. Numerous sleep cycles with all stages of sleep need to be completed each night as each serves different purposes. Choppy sleep will inhibit the deeper and vitally important stages of sleep.

Myth or Fact? You can “catch up” on sleep you lost by sleeping extra the following night.

MYTH. Missing sleep on a regular basis creates “sleep debt,” which can add up quickly. Sleeping in one day on the weekend cannot override the loss. Even if you get extra sleep one day, you may not feel drowsy, but studies have found that attention levels are still below normal, making it difficult to concentrate in the gym as well as in daily life. Consistent sleep is the best approach for steady performance.

Myth or Fact? Alcohol helps you sleep.

MYTH. Alcohol suppresses melatonin levels, making sleep difficult. Although you may fall asleep, alcohol can interrupt REM and keep you out of the necessary deeper sleep cycles your body needs to recover. Oh, and passing out doesn’t count as a good night’s sleep!


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