Sleep – The Ultimate Recovery Method

Importance of Sleep

Sleep Before Anything Else

Sleep is one of the best recovery methods we have.  And yet it is often the most overlooked, with good reason.  Competitive athletes prioritize sleep and nutrition 100% of the time, but not everyone has this luxury.  Professional strength-athletes often do little except workout, eat, and sleep.  They will typically get 8 hours a night and one or two naps a day!  But think of the members of your box. You probably know at least one (or maybe all) of the following people:

  • The 40-something professional who spends 2 hours of his day commuting back and forth to work. He gets up at 4am to squeeze in an hour class at 5am before he starts his day. He also frequently has nagging elbow or shoulder pain that is problematic on and off.
  • The late-20’s new mom who’s trying to put in extra time at the box while on the last legs of maternity leave. She is frustrated that her “pre-baby” body isn’t coming back as easily as she’d hoped. She isn’t seeing the desired results no matter how many times she works out in a week.
  • The 19-year-old college student who loves crushing WODs so much that he’s scheduled classes around his ideal training routine. You see him both at regular class at 9am and again at barbell club in the evening. He’s also working on gymnastic skill work twice a week during open gym.

They may have a love of fitness in common, but one thing is drastically different between the three: Sleep.  There are lots of ways to help recover from workouts.  And many ways to reduce the soreness after a workout.  But one of the best recovery methods is the most natural of all.  A good night’s sleep should be the foundation of your recovery methods.

How Much Sleep is Enough?

Current recommendations for adults are 7-9 hours per night. Even that jump from 7 to 8 hours has shown clinical improvements in cognitive function. It is incredibly difficult to recover from missed sleep than one might think. While one short night may not affect performance, just one week of decreased sleep creates a “sleep debt” that takes more than a week of 8 hour nights to recoup. Not only does performance decrease, but a change in quality and/or quantity of sleep can make you more likely to experience symptoms of overtraining or get sick more easily.  Decreased sleep is one way to quickly increase cortisol, the stress hormone.  And it can have a major impact on your recovery after workouts.

That college student not only has youth on his side, but he has an advantage that the others don’t. 7-8 solid hours of sleep at night and the possibility of a nap in the day somewhere. Compared to the 40-something professional, who likely represents the majority of your members, who has chronically only seen 5, maybe 6, hours at best for the last 15 years. That new mom maybe got 3 hours of sleep total last night and is trying to continue her pre-baby workout routine.  You should probably get this girl a cup of coffee and a hug, rather than encouraging her to add more weight on the bar at this moment.  Make sure she is doing some recovery workouts as well instead of trying to crush a WOD every single day.

Is Working out Bad If I Don’t Sleep Enough?

I’m not saying those who don’t get a full night’s sleep every day shouldn’t walk into the gym. Far from it. We still need the health benefits of regular metcons and strength training. The vast majority of Americans do not exercise regularly. A recent CDC survey found only 20% of adults meet fitness recommendations. For many of us (weightlifters, runners, Mudders, WODers etc), exercise is a release of mental and emotional stress. We need the routine, the endorphin rush, the company of our gym buddies to get through our week

However, exercise is itself a physiological stress. Chronic sleep deprivation impairs your response to all stress – whether that’s physical or emotional. I’ll spare you the nerdy nitty-gritty details, but poor sleep quantity and quality make your body prone to inflammatory responses. When your body overreacts to the training stimulus, you are less likely to heal from the micro-trauma of training. It can’t adequately respond to the little things that can make you sick, either – like allergies or the germs we come in contact with daily life. The more time spent with nagging injuries or a cold, the more you end up half-assing workouts or missing training days completely.

Prioritize Sleep

Are you someone who takes competing seriously and are trying to push to a national level? Or are you simply trying to be the best you to get through life and be there for your family? 90% of us probably fall into this second category. When you come to your coach asking what more you can do to increase your snatch or get that sub-3 Fran time, maybe you should look into adding more shut eye first. Even 2-3 training sessions a week can produce results if you’re getting 7+ hours of sleep at night.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be better. It’s a trait that not only pushes us in the gym, but makes us excel at life, rather than simply accepting the status quo. Sleep is our chance to let our muscles recover and grow and let the brain process all that technique work. No amount of extra training can make up for what you gain during these precious hours. Make sure you set yourself up for success on a daily basis rather than beating yourself down. Sleep may seem like an obvious priority, but you’d be surprised how often it gets put on the back burner.

Sure, as working adults with families, it may not always be an option to get a full night of rest. But, if you’re planning on hitting up the box in the morning, cut out that late night Netflix binge. Avoid the urge to scroll through Instagram or Twitter after you lay down in bed. Go to sleep and dream of your next deadlift PR instead. Your brain, joints, and training goals will thank you.

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