Sleeping Your Way to Fitness

My goal as a coach is to help you get the most out of every workout, plain and simple. And if you look around 8WeeksOut, you’ll find plenty of articles on how to do that by writing conditioning programs.

But here’s the truth that I tell everyone I train: unless you’re also optimizing everything you do outside the gym, you’re simply not going to get the best results from your hard work.

To be your fittest and healthiest, you have to train, recover, and repeat.

Over, and over, and over again.

Today, I’m going to focus on how to optimize the “recover” component of that simple cycle.

It’s no secret that sleep is an essential part of recovery. Yet, as obvious as that is, I see far too many people show up to the gym with too little quality sleep. And the number one thing I hear them say is, “I feel fine. It doesn’t really affect me much.

Oh, but it does. Let me explain…

The 3 biggest ways poor sleep can ambush your results

We’ll start off with the most obvious (and most important) one:

#1 Lack of sleep kills recovery

After going through the stress of a workout, your body has what’s called a recovery trajectory. This is simply the rate you’ll recover at to get back to your pre-workout state. While your genetics and fitness levels sets the upper limit of that trajectory, your behavior will push it up or down—meaning you’ll recover faster or slower.

Your sleep has a tremendous impact on your recovery trajectory: tons of high-quality sleep shoots it upward. Too little, or low-quality sleep pushes your recovery trajectory downward.

sleep affects the recovery trajectory

How does it do this?

When you’re asleep, your body is in a parasympathetic, anabolic state of recovery. The more time you spend in that state, the more time you have to recover. When you deprive yourself of precious sleep, you throw off your circadian rhythm, increasing your heart rate and decreasing your recovery throughout the day (Grimaldi et al, 2016).

The flip side of spending less time in an anabolic recovery state is spending more time in a catabolic state (Dattilo et al, 2011). This decreases your anabolic hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone, and increases your catabolic hormones, such as cortisol.

The net result is a double whammy for recovery: decreased protein synthesis and increased protein degradation. Your body breaks muscle tissue down while preventing it from rebuilding. Ouch.

You may “feel fine” on too little sleep, but a lack of sleep eats your muscle.

This is even more disastrous when you’re cutting calories to drop a few pounds. While you’ll inevitably lose some muscle while dieting, you’ll lose far more when you’re sleep deprived (Nedeltcheva et al, 2010):

sleep affects changes in body composition

Far more of the weight you lose comes from muscle instead of fat when you’re under slept.

Obviously, this doesn’t help you if you’re trying to improve your fitness.

#2 Lack of sleep increases your injury risk

There’s a clear relationship between losing sleep and getting injured, as was beautifully illustrated in a military study by Grier et al (2020). Soldiers who slept 4 hours or less were 2.35 times more likely to get injured than those who slept 8 or more hours.

But sleep depravation didn’t just impact injury risk at the extreme end of the spectrum. Injury rates increased steadily as sleep times dipped below 8 hours.

Translation: the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to have a musculoskeletal injury.

This goes back to less sleep leading to less time for tissues to recover and repair (i.e. less time in the anabolic recovery state).

#3 Bad sleep leads to bad decisions

If you’re like most people, when you get tired, you get hungry.

But research shows that you don’t just crave more food. The kind of food you crave when you’re tired is different than when you’re rested (Greer et al, 2013).

The more tired you feel, the more likely you are to crave high calorie foods.

sleep and food choice

So, while your body is eating its own muscle and struggling to repair damaged tissues, it’s also reaching for the cookie jar. Not a great recipe for recovery.

Why does this happen? Why do you decide to throw yourself in front of the bus instead of limit the damage to your fitness?

As you lose sleep, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) becomes increasingly worse at resisting impulses. When we’re rested, our ANS is far more effective at overriding our knee-jerk reactions to reach for high-calorie foods. However, as we lose more sleep, we lose that resolve. This leaves us much more prone to make poor dietary (and other behavioral) decisions.

The 3 easiest ways to get better sleep—so you don’t sabotage your results

Getting better sleep doesn’t have to be complicated. By making a few simple changes to your bedtime routines, you can dramatically improve your recovery and the results you’ll see from training. The key is to focus on consistently implementing these strategies to unlock the greatest benefit.

#1: Don’t try to out-train bad sleep

This first strategy is the easiest one of all: don’t push your body to its limits when it’s already struggling to recover because of a night of poor sleep.

It’s easy to think that one or two nights of bad sleep isn’t a big deal, but it is. Any time you’re training hard and getting 7 hours or less of high-quality sleep a night, it is absolutely impacting your recovery whether you think it is or not.

The truth is that we’re not always the best judges of what we can or can’t do. Even more, just because we can get a hard workout in even though we didn’t get much sleep last night doesn’t mean that we should.

If you’re using a sleep tracker and/or a recovery management system like Morpheus, then the numbers will almost always tell the story.

morpheus tracks sleep and recovery

If your recovery is low due to lack of sleep, the best strategy is to avoid high-intensity and high-volume workouts that put your body under a lot of stress. That doesn’t mean you can’t workout at all, it just means you should adjust your training to your recovery level.

Typically, that means avoiding (or limiting) strength loads to below 90% of 1RM and conditioning work to below (90% of max HR). It’s at these upper levels of intensity where your recovery is the most challenged, so always keep that in mind when it comes time to train.

If you’re an athlete and you have a practice or a game, then your options may be limited to trying to fit in a nap. But if you are writing your own programs and have control of your training, then it’s always better to adapt your workouts to the reality of your recovery and come back and push it harder the next day.

Personally, when I don’t get enough good sleep, I will most often switch it up either a Rebound Training workout or some other form of active recovery. This is a far better recipe for better recovery and results than trying to out-train a bad night of sleep.

#2: Lay off the caffeine

I grew up and live in Seattle and yes, it’s true that there is a Starbucks one every street corner. In a lot of places, there are two!

So I understand that people like their daily caffeine drip and in moderation and at the right time, there’s not a huge problem with that. Where things go wrong is when you start having stimulants too close to when you need to go to sleep.

Most people probably aren’t too surprised that if you have a stimulant right before bedtime, or even 3 hours before, that it’s not a great thing for sleep. What most people don’t realize, however, that even if you have it 6 full hours away from when you plan to go to sleep, it can still have a dramatic impact on both how much sleep you get and the quality oft hat sleep.

Take a look at the results of the research below. 400mg of caffeine consumed 6 hours before bed reduced sleep by 41 minutes (Drake et al, 2013). And here’s the worst part: people in the study reported feeling no effects of the caffeine when they went to bed.

how caffeine can hurt sleep

This is what makes caffeine and stimulants such a problem. It often doesn’t feel like they’re impacting your sleep, but they are.

If your goal is to maximize your recovery, make sure to avoid caffeine and other stimulants as far away from bedtime as possible. You might not notice it’s making a difference in your sleep, but over time, your results will show that it is.

Sorry, not sorry, Starbucks.

#3: Fix your bedroom

If you live an average lifespan and get roughly 8 hours of sleep per night, you’ll spend about 229,961 hours in your bedroom. That’s a lot of time in one room and why it’s the most important room in your house.

If you haven’t invested in making your bedroom optimized for sleep, you’re missing out a huge piece of the recovery puzzle. If you’re still sleeping an an old cheap mattress, the same pillow you’ve had for 5 years, and your room is bright and loud, it’s time to do something about it.

Think about how much money you spend on your car, your 4k TV, your computer, your phone, etc. None of those things will improve your recovery and thus drive your health, fitness, and performance. Investing in your bedroom environment will.

Follow these four principles of bedroom design and your body will thank you for it:

fix your sleep environment for better recovery

  1. Make it dark. Use blackout blinds or use a high-quality face mask
  2. Make it quiet. Soundproof your room, and/or use a white noise machine
  3. Make it comfortable. Get the most comfortable bed and bedding that you can afford. It will pay off
  4. Make it cold. Sleeping hot is not a good recipe for recovery. Keep your room cool and sink into higher-quality sleep

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