Sleep is an essential bodily process that needs to occur regularly and for the appropriate length of time. Without it, every system in the body gets disrupted, our health suffers, we feel terrible, and our productivity goes down.
Sleep is literally what makes us human, and every sleep-deprived person can attest to it: we need to sleep. Today, we will explore three ways sleep impacts our fitness outcomes. So let us dive in.
Three reasons why sleep is vital for your fitness outcomes
1. Sleep is vital for muscle growth and recovery
Muscle growth and optimal recovery occur when muscle protein synthesis (MPS) rates exceed those of protein degradation. The body is constantly breaking down proteins, and so long as new proteins come to replace the old ones, protein turnover ticks like a Swiss watch, and we grow.
One way to ensure optimal MPS is to consume enough protein, which, according to studies, is somewhere between 0.7 and 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For an 80 kg (176 lbs) person, this would add 80 grams of protein (2.8 oz).
Another way is to make sure to get enough sleep. Studies show that sleep deprivation hinders the body's ability to carry out protein synthesis, worsening our recovery rates and preventing us from building muscle. Poor sleep can also harm testosterone - a hormone with critical functions related to physical health, muscle growth, athleticism, and more. A drop in testosterone could hinder muscle protein synthesis, lead to poor training performance, and prevent you from gaining muscle and recovering after workouts.
2. Sleep is essential for optimal fat-burning
Another study published back in 2010 set out to examine the impact sleep had on participants. The subjects could spend 8.5 or 5.5 hours in bed each night. This was coupled with a severely calorie-restricted, low-protein diet that lasted for two weeks. This study was a crossover trial: all subjects had to go through both conditions.
When subjects could spend 8.5 hours in bed, they slept an average of 7 hours and 25 minutes. When they could spend 5.5 hours in bed, they slept an average of 5 hours and 14 minutes. In other words, they fell asleep more quickly while sleep-deprived, which makes sense.
What is interesting is the weight loss. In both conditions, subjects lost around 2.9 kg (6.6 lbs) weight in the two weeks. When they slept for over seven hours per night, subjects lost equal amounts of lean and fat tissue. When sleep-deprived, only 20 percent of the weight loss came from fat, and the remaining came from lean tissue. With everything else being the same, a mere two hours of sleep more resulted in significantly better fat loss. How did the saying go? Same same, but different.
It is also important to note that sleep significantly impacts our behaviors. For example, sleep deprivation leads to cravings and poor impulse control, making it more challenging to stick with the necessary caloric restriction. In contrast, sleeping well would make dieting easier and allow you to control your cravings.
3. Sleep impacts our athletic performance and workout quality
Sleep deprivation can be harsh. Think back to when you had a few nights of poor sleep. How did you feel? Chances are, you were irritable, tired, and unable to perform well in the gym.
While a single night of poor sleep might not ruin your performance and halt the gains train, missed hours of rest add up and tip the scale. Simply put, if you are not getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, your workout performance takes a hit and does not recover until you repay the sleep debt.
Common issues relating to sleep deprivation include decreased strength, power, and endurance, a lower work capacity, and low motivation to work hard and remain consistent. Additionally, poor sleep can impact your motivation to train. Sleep deprivation can make you less willing to train and more likely to go down the path of least resistance. As a result, you might not even make it to the gym. Instead, you could find yourself skipping workouts in favor of more pleasurable activities like watching TV.
Four actionable tips to improve your sleep (even while on the road)
Getting enough quality sleep on the road can be tricky. It can be challenging to ease your mind between constant traveling, going to bed at different times, and not having a consistent routine.
Luckily, there are three things you can do to improve your sleep, regardless of where you are. Here they are:
1. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine
The occasional nightcap might seem like a perfectly reasonable way to end the day and fall asleep more easily. But unfortunately, research shows that alcohol can reduce sleep quality and prevent us from getting enough deep restorative sleep. Therefore, limiting alcoholic drinks to no more than one or two is best, and avoiding drinking within an hour or two before bed. That way, your body has enough time to process the ethanol (alcohol), reducing the risk of poor sleep.
Caffeine, the most famous stimulant on the planet, is another thing to limit. Caffeine has a half-life of roughly 5.5 hours, but that could be up to 10 hours for some individuals. So, if you ingest 300 mg of caffeine at 4 PM, you could still have 150 mg or more coursing through your system at 10:30 PM. To prevent caffeine from impacting your sleep, cutting it out within 6 to 8 hours of going to bed is best.
2. Improve your Sleep Environment
Your sleep environment also dramatically affects your ability to get enough rest at night. Specifically, your room should be:
- Cool - between 18-21° in Celsius (65 and 70 degrees F)
- Dark - blackout curtains can work well, especially if you sleep in during the weekend
- Quiet - earplugs can work if you live in a noisy neighborhood
Having a comfortable and supportive mattress and pillow can also help, but this is not something we can always control.
3. Have a pre-bed ritual
A fantastic way to improve sleep quality is to ease your mind before hitting the sack, regardless of where you are. Instead of looking at a screen before going to bed, switch things up. For example, you can create a simple pre-bed routine consisting of:
- Some reading (not on the phone)
- Stretching your muscles
These activities are great for promoting relaxation and making it easier to fall asleep. But, more importantly, not staring at a screen allows your body to produce more melatonin, which is crucial for good sleep. Speaking of that:
4. Consider melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone your body produces in response to darkness. It is vital in suppressing nervous system activity, promoting relaxation, and allowing you to fall asleep. The hormone is also necessary for orienting your circadian rhythm, your body's internal clock that impacts how you feel at different points of the day and night.
Healthy people produce adequate melatonin to promote sleep and relaxation, but researchers are increasingly interested in supplementation. Melatonin supplements are usually synthetic and designed to promote sleep, especially in people who struggle to fall asleep or wake up often at night. Interestingly, research suggests that melatonin supplements are most beneficial for people dealing with Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder and Jetlag. You can read our guide on jetlag and how to deal with it.
This research shows that taking a melatonin supplement up to an hour before the desired bedtime can help people fall asleep more quickly and "reset" their internal clock when dealing with jetlag. People working different shifts can also struggle to sleep well because they can not establish a consistent sleeping schedule. Such individuals can also benefit from taking a melatonin supplement.
Melatonin supplements come in several forms, with capsules and tablets being among the most widespread options. Natrol Melatonin Advanced Sleep Tablets are recommended and have great reviews on Amazon.
A liquid melatonin supplement might be a better fit if pills are not for you. A melatonin spray is a product you use by spraying into your mouth one or more times before bed. Thanks to its form, the spray gets absorbed quickly and can promote good sleep in less time than capsules or tablets. As a liquid melatonin option, the Allergy Research Group - Liposomal Melatonin is a product that is recommended frequently. This supplement will put you to sleep quickly and help you stay there.
The big issue with sleep deprivation
A few nights of poor sleep on the road might not seem that bad. After all, you are tough and can still be productive, train effectively, and go about your life. The issue is that undersleeping chronically leads to the accumulation of sleep debt. Like financial debt, it grows, and our only way to get rid of it is to pay it off.
But imagine, as little as a week of poor sleep has the same effects on the mind and body as staying up for two days straight. And the worst part? We get used to the adverse effects and begin to see them as our new normal. Before we know it, we are fooling ourselves into thinking we are doing alright. In reality, our performance and health begin to decline without realizing it.
How much sleep do we need?
We are all different, and no single recommendation works for everyone. But, in general, adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep. An excellent way to figure out your needs is to try falling asleep earlier and aim to wake up naturally without an alarm clock. Then, if you wake up after a specific number of hours several days in a row and feel rested, you can use that as your guideline.
If you constantly wake up tired or are interested in learning more about your sleeping habits, a smartwatch might be an exciting investment. Sleep tracker apps analyze your movement, behaviors, time spent in Rapid Eye Movement (REM), as well as sounds as you sleep to share insights into your sleep quality. The top sleep tracker apps are:
- Best overall: SleepScore
- Best free: SleepCycle
- Best for iOS: Pillow
Why snoozing is terrible for your Sleep
We have all been there: Just as we enjoy our deepest and most restful sleep, the alarm clock goes off and shatters the silence. Before we know it, we tap the snooze button so we can enjoy a few extra minutes of rest before getting up to tackle the day.
At first glance, this innocent ritual seems okay. But upon closer look, hitting the snooze button is worse than most people imagine. Sleep quantity and quality matter equally. They are two sides of the same coin. Once your alarm clock goes off, it wakes you up. So even if you hit the snooze button and fall asleep immediately, your alarm has already broken the chain, and you are no longer in that state of deep rest.
You might get a few extra minutes of sleep, but that rest will not do much for you because it takes your body time to fall into a deep sleep. In addition, each sleep cycle takes around 90 minutes to complete and deliver benefits, so getting an extra 9-minutes, which is the default on every Apple iPhone, of sleep would not do you much good.
Hitting the snooze button might be worse. If left uninterrupted, your body can use that time to be in a deep sleep. But if you wake up, hit snooze, and repeat, you get out of that state and can only enjoy some shallow rest until it is time to get up or hit snooze again.
Plus, snoozing can also worsen the experience of waking up in the morning. For example, if you hit the snooze button and fall asleep immediately, the alarm clock will go off again just as you drift off. This can make for an unpleasant experience and make it more challenging to wake up in the morning. Waking up to an alarm is rarely a pleasurable experience (unless you're going on a trip), but it's infinitely better to wake up just once instead of several times.
How to stop hitting the snooze button
There is no secret to avoiding the snooze button in the morning. You must consciously decide that snoozing is not good and that you should stop. A good tactic you can start using is to place your phone far from your bed. In doing so, you force yourself to get up and move to turn it off in the morning. Movement is a great way to start waking up, and you will be less likely to hit the snooze button after getting up. In contrast, having your phone in reach will make it easier to go for the easy solution of hitting snooze.
Another beneficial thing you can do is to start moving right away. It might sound counterintuitive, but movement is among the best ways to wake yourself up. For example, once you stop the alarm, walk to the bathroom, splash water on your face, and brush your teeth.
You can also set an objective for yourself in the morning. Doing so is a great way to have a 'why' for waking up in the morning. A good practice would be to have a simple morning routine. It could include some exercise, reading, journaling, or simple reflection.
Finally, if you have the time to hit 'Snooze' repeatedly, why not use that time for uninterrupted sleep? Instead of hitting snooze several times, enjoy these 9-18-27 minutes of extra sleep and wake up as soon as your alarm goes off. That way, you might get more sleep and feel more rested throughout the day.
Sleep is hardly an exciting subject, especially as it relates to fitness. But, as you saw above, getting adequate sleep is necessary for feeling great, burning fat effectively, building muscle, and more. Rest is also necessary for maintaining your health and being more productive.
Guidelines suggest that adults aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Limiting alcohol and caffeine, having a pre-bedtime routine, and optimizing your sleep environment can promote restful sleep. A melatonin supplement can also be beneficial, especially in people working shifts and those dealing with Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder or jetlag.