The No. 1 Thing You Can Do for Better Recovery

By Chris Breen | Oct. 02, 2017, 4:56 p.m. (ET)
sleep
Let's talk about sleep. Sleep is the unsexy part of sport. Nobody is posting pictures of themselves sleeping on Instagram. In fact, many athletes boast about how early they wake up in order to train — as if in some way that makes them a better athlete than others. There is no denying that training in the early morning is a necessity for most age-group athletes, but consistently cutting your sleep short is shortchanging your performance and is not sustainable if you intend to be involved in the sport for a long time. 
 
You see sleep is the No. 1 recovery tool every athlete has access to. I am not a big believer in life hacks and the same rings true for the sport of triathlon. Those who are looking for hacks and shortcuts are not willing to do the work. At some point, you will have to work on your swim, your bike and your run if you want to be successful in all three. You will have to be consistent at each in order to do so, and restorative techniques allow you to do so with sleep being the first and foremost. If quality sleep is not established first, then all your other restorative techniques (massage, ice, compression, etc.) won't mean a thing. Even what you eat is second to sleep when it comes to recovering. Therefore, sleep has to be treated the same way you’d treat your Saturday bike session, and that is by making it a priority and being consistent with it.
 
Sleep needs to be restorative. Think of it as that and make it a priority to ensure it is restorative. Stop focusing just on the quantity of sleep and start to also focus on quality. Many athletes have difficulty falling asleep or fall asleep quickly but then wake up shortly thereafter. Don't count the number of hours you lay in bed awake trying to fall asleep as hours of actually sleeping. 
 
The sleep cycle is five stages. Stages 1-4 and REM sleep. We typically will cycle through this four to five times a night. Stages 1 and 2 are considered light sleep and stages 3 and 4 are considered deep sleep. It is during stages 3 and 4 and predominantly stage 3 where growth hormone is released in order to restore your muscles from the previous day's stress — where your immune system is repaired and where your brain also refreshes itself. If we are getting good quality sleep we will spend anywhere from 4-7 hours between stages 1-4 and another 90-120 minutes in REM sleep. Therefore, aiming for 7 hours of quality sleep per night should be your priority. 
 
Here are 10 rules to follow to help you get quality sleep.
 
1. Get up at the same time every morning as this will allow your body to feel ready for sleep at the same time every night. 
2. Don't linger in bed. Reserve your bedroom for sleep and keep it that. 
3. Keep your bedroom cool and dark, and invest in a high-quality mattress that you find comfortable. 
4. Don't watch television in bed. In fact, take the television out of the bedroom all together. 
5. Don't play on your tablet or phone in bed and don't even read in bed. I advocate not watching any television or using your phone or tablet within one hour of going to sleep, as it provides too much of a stimulus at a time when we want to avoid just that. 
6. Light reading is OK but should be done outside the bedroom. 
7. Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon. If you are getting high-quality sleep then caffeine can be avoided all together and you won't feel a need for it in the morning. 
8. Avoid working out immediately before bed. 
9. Be mindful of what you are eating and drinking as well prior to going to bed. 
10. Avoid alcohol late in the evening. Although alcohol has a relaxing and sedative effect it can also lead to nighttime awakening due to sympathetic activation. Drinking any fluid in high amounts even water prior to going to sleep will also likely awaken you frequently to use the bathroom. I avoid high-calorie meals as well, especially meals high in carbohydrate and opt for a small nutrient-dense high protein beverage. 
 
Remember consistency is what is needed to be successful in sport. Consistent high-quality sleep is the most important restorative technique and should be treated as such.
 
Christopher Breen, PA-C, ACSM EP-C is a Certified Physician Assistant specializing in sports medicine and orthopaedics, a Certified Exercise Physiologist by The American College of Sports Medicine and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. He is the founder and head coach of ARIA Endurance Coaching LLC and also works at Winthrop Orthopaedic Assoc., PC in Long Island, New York. He can be reached at ariaendurance.com and ariaendurance@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.