Is Sleep the Missing Element in Obtaining Peak Physical Fitness?

02/08/2013 09:33 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 10:12 BST
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Have you ever wondered why, despite intensive and regular training, you find it difficult to reach optimum fitness levels? Or perhaps you regularly question what it would take to squeeze just a few more seconds off in a time trial? Tim Pinchin, Octaspring's Sleep Expert, may have the answer. Here, he discusses the missing element to ultimate fitness, in his first blog post for us about sleep...

Sleep and its effect on sporting performance is an area that is of great interest to me. With all the recent sporting events this summer, such as Wimbledon and The Tour de France, together with the increased popularity in sporting challenges such as Iron Man, Tough Mudder and the Three Peaks Challenge, I thought a blog post discussing the topic would be quite timely.

For many people in training, sleep is often an overlooked and heavily underestimated element; be that training for endurance events such as marathons and triathlons, or in one's general daily exercise regime. There has been extensive research looking into this topic and its inherent connection, and all conclusions point in the same direction - that quality sleep gained, over several weeks both before and during training, greatly improves performance on four separate measures: speed, accuracy, mood and alertness. Since it is during sleeping hours that the body fully recharges, recovers and repairs, any athlete or general gym-goer, will need more sleep that those who do not workout. This is to counter-balance the stress and exertion applied to the body during exercise. Getting just an extra hour of sleep a night, when in training, can have a marked impact on performance.

Furthermore, being very active during the day and not getting enough sleep at night may mean you will suffer from reduced energy levels the next day. Despite this being quite an obvious statement, many individuals make the same oversight on a regular basis; namely burning the candle at both ends. If you do not take time to allow your body to rest and recover properly, there will be a knock on effect to your health and well-being, and ultimately one's fitness will decrease. Likewise - and here comes the science bit - the body's ability to store glycogen (glucose from food that is stored in the body and then converted to energy when needed) goes hand in hand with the amount of sleep obtained. If you are not getting enough sleep, there won't be enough glycogen stored within the body to be converted into energy when it is need the most. Therefore, the less energy one has, the less stamina and speed one will have too.

Sleep is also vital for cognitive restoration, the process by which your brain recovers from mental fatigue. Like the body, the mind needs to be 'recharged' to work effectively and efficiently. Sleep is therefore essential when you need to make split-second decisions, especially when in competitive environments (and even when fighting against yourself and your own determination and willpower). Without adequate sleep, you may find yourself making clumsy mistakes, especially if playing contact or coordination sports. Interestingly, it is during sleep that levels of the important growth hormone, Somatropin is increased. It is this hormone that is responsible for repair. However, when one suffers from sleep deprivation, Cortisol - the stress hormone - is increased instead, and there is a hormonal imbalance within the body. Subsequently, repair and healing takes much longer and the risk of injuries will be greatly increased.

When asleep, the body will go through several cycles of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), and rapid eye movement sleep (REM); REM is known as deep sleep, and is when the body is able to truly recover. It is therefore essential that this period of sleep is undisturbed. Since this type of sleep is only reached through pure comfort, the right body temperature and a lack of distractions, it is important to ensure one has the right sleeping conditions. Your bedroom should be dark and cool, and your mind and body at ease. I would suggest avoiding caffeine after 5pm, and clearing your mind by reading a book or listening to mellow music in the evening. It is also worth investing in good quality bedding, the way you would invest in the correct sports kit. Buying a mattress that respects and supports your sleeping position and is breathable, keeping your body at the right temperature for optimum regeneration, can be as important to your results as the choice you make on shoes, racquet or bike...

To conclude, if you consider yourself a bit of a sporting pro or indeed, a fitness junkie, to be at peak physical fitness, sleep shouldn't be overlooked. Sleep affects our health and wellbeing on so many levels and sporting performance is just the tip of the iceberg. It affects the hormone balance in our bloodstream, and how the body uses food and energy sources. It also has an effect on our cognitive restoration, which can have a wider impact on our lives, not just when working out and pushing our bodies to its sporting limit. For me, sleep is the elixir to life, so it's important not to underestimate it.