Coaching Advice

Why Sleep Matters

March 30, 2020
Why Sleep Matters

Words and photo by Lisa Mazzola

Remember the days of our youth when we could sleep in, which often meant over eight hours of sleep a night?  In my adult years, I feel lucky when I get 6-7 hours of quality sleep a night. I became sleep obsessed when I started training as an endurance athlete, knowing how important sleep is for recovery and performance.  Now as a coach, it is one of the metrics that I nudge my athletes about the most, urging them to prioritize their sleep. What we now know from the research is that the more good quality sleep you get, the better you will feel and perform in life and sport.

I had always known that I was a “light sleeper”, someone who would awaken at the sound of a pin drop, but in the last few years I have suffered with the challenge of getting consistent amounts of high quality sleep. And If you are like me you are not alone, because two-thirds of adults fail to get eight hours of sleep per night.


Why We Need Sleep

It was my quest for improving my sleep that brought me to the research of neuroscientist, Dr. Mathew Walker, author of the book Why We Sleep.  It dramatically changed how I view the role of sleep in our lives both short and long term.  Turns out that the amount of and quality of our sleep is not just a key factor for our healthspan, it is a direct contributor to our lifespan as well. According to Dr. Walker, adults optimally need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor in determining whether or not you will develop physical and cognitive disease such as cancer, diabetes and mental illness. The more sleep we get, the stronger our immune system is. In addition, if we don't get enough sleep, our body over produces hormones like cortisol that make us feel hungry and suppress the sensation of satiety and cause us to consume more calories than is needed. Luckily, there are things that are within our control that we can do to get more high quality sleep.


Tips For a Better Night's Sleep

Here are some tips for controlling environmental factors and incorporating good sleep hygiene routines that are based on scientific research.

  • Make sure your bedroom is cool (65 degrees or less). All of the research points to lower body temperature as critical for falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • Create a sleep environment that is close to total darkness. I installed black out window shades in my bedroom and I sleep with an eye mask.
  • Eliminate as much outside noise as you can. I sleep with earplugs to block sound at home and when I travel (along with my eye mask). There are also white noise machines and apps that can help with this.
  • Reduce tech time. Spending all of our waking hours on devices which emit damaging blue light, disrupts our natural circadian rhythms.
  • Maintain a consistent schedule. Going to bed and waking up around the same time (even on weekends) supports our natural circadian rhythm.
  • Prepare your body for sleep. An hour or two before bed time, meditate or do some light stretching or yoga to unwind.


Tracking Sleep

After reading Dr. Walker’s book, I decided to start tracking my sleep to assess my sleep quality and as motivation to improve my sleep hygiene. Luckily there are now several wearable devices at our disposal designed to track sleep metrics. I researched the Oura Ring, the Apple Watch and the Whoop strap.  I chose the Oura Ring because I preferred a ring, it was application based, and it had all of the metrics I was interested in. All three devices are able to track not only your total sleep time, but also the time you spent in all of the stages of sleep (light, REM and deep), when and how much time your sleep was disturbed  (this was shocking), and your sleep latency (how long it took for you to fall asleep).

One word of advice about tracking your sleep data. There are some days that I wake up and see that I have had very little overall or high quality sleep, but I feel fine.  If you have an off night and do not feel your best, let your training accommodate that and perhaps lower the intensity or volume accordingly.  Take a break in the day to sit quietly or go for a walk to get fresh air. Engage proper sleep hygiene and ideally you will be back on track. And as much as I love seeing the data I think it is important to not let it override your instincts or convince you that your work day or training is going to be of less quality because you have not slept enough.  Knowledge is truly power, and your own sense of how you feel day to day is qualitative data.

I think it’s time we all took a page from Dr. Walker’s book and “reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, without embarrassment or the damaging stigma of laziness.”  Not only will we feel better and perform at a higher level, we will live longer and healthier.

Sweet dreams!

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