Why is sleep important?
Sleep is a hugely underrated & overlooked element of most athletes training & nutrition journeys. Everyone places a lot of focus on their training regimes, making sure they smash out 6 workouts a week, get 2 runs in a week, ride 6 times a week, but they fail to ensure they get a regular 7-9 hours of sleep a night & give their bodies a chance to recover from all of this life stress.
As a coach training is only one part of the puzzle whether your goal is performance-related or physique related recovery & sleep is key. If you are not sleeping enough or getting quality sleep through the week you will then be under recovering & disrupting your hormones.
Often people talk about overtraining especially in the case of injuries but in reality for the average rider training 3-6 times a week & riding every day overtraining is actually very unlikely it’s far more likely to be a case of under-recovery which is actually very common. Overtraining is actually very hard to achieve & typically is only truly found in elite-level athletes & those who train excessively. Whereas under-recovery is found in most humans regardless of their training level & schedule.
Sleep is your biggest recovery factor & where your body repairs the damage done to your body in your training sessions as well as life. Yep, that’s right, when you are training & doing your sessions you are damaging your body. You need the training to become stronger, progressively overload & increase your fitness but it is during sleep where your body recovers & repairs the damage done during your workout, therefore, making you stronger, leaner & fitter. If you can get your head around that sleep is where change & progress occurs then that is a game-changer.
A poll back in 2018 found that the average adult living in the UK got 6 hours 19 minutes of sleep a night compared to the recommended 8+ hours per night. The majority of these people were struggling to sleep & get quality sleep due to stress, work-life schedules & a busy life all being the main reasons for struggling to sleep. The study also found that over 25% of these individuals relied on caffeinated products to get them through to the end of the day.
Now caffeine is a great tool & can be used to increase your energy & give you higher input in your training sessions but it should not be relied on that is just a bit worrying & it will hugely impact your sleep quality if you are consuming caffeine late in the day. Sleep should be prioritised.
Remember your body does not have the ability to compartmentalise stress, the body treats stress as stress whether that be work stress, your mind racing at 1 million miles an hour, your horses causing you a headache or physical stress impaired on your body from your workout. It is really important to understand this & this is why finding a healthy work/life balance is so important if your body is constantly stressed (remember it doesn’t know where that stress has come from) but this will negatively impact your training, mood & life in general.
Fitness & sleep are a very intimate relationship & you should take your sleep & recovery just as seriously as your training. During weekly check-ins sleep is always something I put a large amount of focus into with my clients, I want to make sure they are recovering adequately & feeling energised so we can push on to another strong week of training with good energy & avoiding any chance of injury. Most of us are training to either improve muscle mass, drop body fat, improve endurance or improve strength all of which require sleep to get these adaptations. If you are not giving your body the recovery it needs then you will not achieve these goals & give your body the respect it needs to grow & progress.
When we sleep our bodies are processing growth hormones which help our muscles to repair from a hard workout & build lean muscle. HGH, cortisol, leptin & grehlin are some of the main growth hormones at work when we sleep. HGH is essential for optimal recovery & healing from injury. HGH is the hormone that builds muscle tissue & sufficient levels are needed in order for the tissue to fully repair & heal themselves. If you do not get enough sleep, then your body won’t be able to produce enough HGH therefore prolonging the recovery period. Cortisol is your stress hormone which decreases with sleep the higher your cortisol levels the higher your stress which affects weight gain, energy levels, mood, anxiety to name a few. Leptin & grehlin are the appetite hormones that tell you you are full or you are hungry. When you get insufficient sleep grehlin levels to rise telling you your hungry which if your goal is weight-based will affect your progress hugely most probably negatively.
These hormones are essential for athletic recovery, the better rested you are the better you can perform both mentally & physically & the closer you will be to achieving your goals. Quality sleep has been shown to have a positive effect on your strength & work capacity when training but also on your mood, focus & drive. Overall giving you better performance during your session which is what we want!
If you’re training on less sleep or poor recovery you may find that sessions feel harder, your performance may not decline but you will most probably fatigue faster & it will make the session feel much harder to work at your maximum capacity. Hitting your sleep has been shown to help symptoms that are similar to those of overtraining, things like muscle soreness & higher risk of injuries have been found to be decreased in those individuals who regularly get 7-8 hours of sleep as a nightly average.
Multiple studies have shown that 7-9 hours of sleep is the optimal length of time for your body to be functioning at its best. Less sleep has been linked to cardiovascular disease & increasing the risk of illnesses such as strokes. So if you don’t respect the importance of sleep for your training & riding hopefully you do for your health!
Regular exercise has also been shown to help you to sleep so it works both ways, you need to sleep enough to recover from training but you also need to exercise enough to get quality sleep. Make sense?
Exercise releases endorphins (feel-good hormones) & creates adenosine in the brain & this is the chemical that helps to make us feel sleepy. The more we train the more this chemical will help us to want to sleep. Hence why after a competition day you crash out as soon as your head hits the pillow. Regular training & exercise also helps your body’s circadian rhythm (this is your body’s natural sleep, wake cycle) to understand the schedule it is on helping your body to shut off & sleep better at night. There has been evidence to say that late-night training can affect this rhythm as your cortisol levels will be elevated & may leave you struggling to sleep but ultimately it’s about finding the right schedule for you.
If it is a case of rising early to get your training in you want to make sure that you are getting enough rest prior to your alarm clock. If you’ve only had 6 hours of sleep & wake up not feeling it then actually you may be better getting an extra hour of sleep & then training later on in the day. Ultimately the more your prioritise your sleep & recovery the harder you can work in your session & you will have a better workout.
Sleep in relation to injuries & fitness is so important for riders who make a career out of horses & staying injury-free is absolutely essential so you can make a living. I hope this helps you to understand the importance of prioritising your sleep & how it can hugely improve your progress in your training & riding. If you struggle with your sleep routine here are my 5 tips;
1- Set yourself a bedtime alarm. Go up to bed & get into a good habit of going up to bed at the same time each night & starting your bedtime routine
2- Get off your phone-the blue light from phones, TV’s, screens affect your melatonin levels which is your sleepy hormone so if you’re on your phone right till you try to sleep your body is going to struggle to shut off
3- Read a book or listen to some sleep meditation or podcast. Whatever works for you but do something to occupy your mind that doesn’t involve your phone or work & helps your brain & body to relax
4- If you’ve got things on your mind, things you’re worrying about or tasks for the next day keep a notepad by your bed & write down your tasks for the next day so you remember them when you wake up. This should help you to relax & stop worrying about things
5-Aim to be in bed 30 minutes before you actually want to sleep-work out what time you need to be asleep by to get your 8 hours & try to be in bed half an hour before so you can switch off & catch you Z’s in time
Don’t underestimate the power of quality sleep & the effect it has on your training, riding & fitness journeys.