Is sleep the new secret weapon in the ever more intense battle among pro cycling teams? The ‘battle of the motorhome’ at the Tour de France demonstrated the growing significance of this issue.
Team Sky — as usual, in the vanguard of seeking out every advantage for its riders — wanted to install team-leader Chris Froome in a motorhome for the entire duration of the race. The aim was simple: to guarantee a consistent, controlled and familiar environment for Froome to sleep in each and every night.
“The confidence that this kind of environment produces puts its value through the roof,” explains Nick Littlehales, a sleep coach from sportsleepcoach.com. “By confidence I mean confidence that you’ve got the best possible conditions to get a good night’s sleep with the environment perfectly set up for recovery,”
The sport’s governing body clearly recognises the value that the set-up produces. By banning Sky’s use of motorhomes, the UCI was sending a clear message: it would be unfair on other teams that didn’t have them. The Aigle busybodies, serving their self-importance if not racing fairness, and perhaps prompted by some vigorous behind-the-scenes lobbying from Team Sky’s rivals, clamped down on this potential new marginal gain with uncharacteristic speed and decisiveness.
Quality and duration
Many commentators believe that the use of motorhomes by pro teams in Grand Tours is inevitable and that the days of checking into a hotel and expecting world-class athletes competing in the planet’s most gruelling event to sleep in hot, uncomfortable, cramped rooms, in unfamiliar beds will be consigned to the dustbin of sporting history.
It’s all about sleep — its quality and duration, and how vital it is to recovery. So, what can the ordinary rider learn from Team Sky’s latest obsession? Why does sleep matter, and can we use any of the theories underpinning the battle of the motorhome to improve our own cycling fitness?
“Sleep in itself is not an obvious performance criteria, so to an extent in recent years it’s been ignored,” says Littlehales. “But it’s well known that recovery is a vital factor in performance. Eight hours of quality sleep is an opportunity to recover and rehabilitate; and more-sustainable and higher levels of recovery improves performance.
“These principles are certain to be widely adopted by the pro teams, and even much lower down the cycling world there will be increasing recognition of the importance of sleep’s role in recovery.”
Sleep and its role in athletic performance is not widely studied, and some of the findings are inconclusive. But some understanding of the importance of duration and quality of sleep has been ascertained. We could all do with more sleep, probably, but for cyclists in training, it’s not just the duration that matters; the quality is also vital.
The most relevant aspect to sleep as a recovery tool for active people is the amount of short-wave sleep (SWS) that we can include in a night’s shuteye. You may have heard about rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is often considered to be the highest-quality form of sleep. But SWS is much more important for active people.
SWS happens between bouts of REM sleep. It is the deepest sleep, the type from which it is most difficult to emerge. If the phone rings and you manage to rouse yourself from SWS, you will feel and sound really groggy — the person on the other end of the phone will know you’ve been asleep.
SWS usually happens during the first third of the night’s sleep and, crucially for active people, it is thought to be the most important period for the brain to do its work in helping the body to recover from hard exercise. Some studies have shown that growth hormone is released during SWS. This is a vital substance for repairing the damage that exercise and training causes.
A natural performance boost
Similarly, it’s thought that SWS could be the peak period for a process known as anabolism. This is a complex set of brain and body chemistry that produces proteins, lipids, acids and many other substances that are essential to the growth, maintenance and repair of the body. Anabolic steroids — a banned substance in cycling — when administered artificially promote the processes of anabolism. A good way of thinking about SWS is that it’s legal and perfectly natural doping.
The other important aspect of SWS is that it is directly related to the amount of wakefulness that precedes it. If you have missed a lot of sleep, you will slip into SWS much more easily. This has implications for those who like a nap. Afternoon naps, for instance, shorten the period of wakefulness before a night’s sleep — making it less likely that periods of SWS will follow. If you do take a nap, take it at around lunchtime.
The evidence suggests that more sleep makes you go better and that the right kind of sleep is vital for metabolic processes of recovering from hard exercise. It’s little surprise that pro teams are beginning to focus on this area with laser-like concentration. It’s also an area where amateur cyclists can make the same gains without spending thousands of pounds on kit, coaches and all the other support networks that the pros enjoy.
In general, hardly any of us get enough sleep. This is significant because of the long-term effects on health. But it’s even more significant for those who are particularly active, since sleep is important in recovering from hard exercise. How bad is the problem?
Almost all of the data comes from self-reported polls — that is, people responding to surveys measuring their own sleep duration. But findings are fairly uniform, and thought to be quite reliable. The average healthy adult sleeps for about six hours 40 minutes per night on weekdays and around seven hours 20 minutes at weekends.
Many academics believe that between 7.5 to eight hours is the ideal duration of sleep. This means that the vast majority of us operate in what the sleep scientists call “sleep debt”. In short: we’re not getting enough. What effect does it have? Well, none good.
Firstly, mood is profoundly altered with “confusion, vigour, fatigue and total mood disturbance all negatively affected by sleep deprivation,” according to a review of the area by researchers at the Gatorade Sports Foundation. They also found “increases in depression, tension, confusion, fatigue and anger,” after several nights of reduced sleep. Longer-term, the risk of stroke increases and weight may be gained; the risk of developing brittle bones increases, as does the likelihood of heart disease and some forms of cancer.
In terms of recovery from hard exercise, being in sleep debt is very risky. Reduced sleep duration has a negative impact on the body’s immune function. It’s well established that training hard also adversely affects the body’s immune system, so combining it with reduced sleep is a double whammy. Hence, you are likely to recover much less well from exercise and be much more prone to illness. As the researchers conclude: “Poor sleep and the resultant decreased immunity may have a negative influence on athletic performance.”
What happens if the amount of sleep is increased to well above the recommended eight hours? No cycling-specific work has been done here, but researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine asked student athletes competing in swimming, tennis and basketball to try to get at least 10 hours sleep a night for around six weeks. In all cases, performance improved markedly, with speed, accuracy and reaction times all measured to be better. The athletes said they felt in a better mood, had more energy and were less fatigued. Duration and quality of sleep really matter.
What else can I try?
All the experts agree that the first and most important steps towards maintaining healthy habits in sleep are to stick as closely as possible to the sleep hygiene guidelines. Not many active people want to even consider using sleeping tablets; you’re correct to be cautious about sleep medication.
But if your sleep hygiene is good and you’re still struggling to get consistent periods of high-quality sleep, from which you wake feeling refreshed and ready to go, there are a few things that it may pay to experiment with.
The evidence for some of these nutritional strategies is not conclusive and some of them might work for some people, but should be regarded as a last resort, or attempted in conjunction with other good sleep practices.
There’s some evidence that high-GI foods like white rice, pasta, bread and potatoes may promote sleep, but they are best eaten well before bedtime.
Diets with a high carb content can produce shorter sleep ‘latencies’ — otherwise known as dropping-off time.
Diets high in protein may improve sleep quality, whereas high-fat diets may reduce sleep duration.
A small dose (1g) of a substance called tryptophan can shorten dropping-off time and improve sleep quality. You can get this naturally from 300g of turkey or 200g of pumpkin seeds.
The herb valerian may be effective as a sleeping aid. But it is at its most effective after two weeks’ use. It’s thought to be fairly safe but there are known side-effects, so it’s one to be considered extremely carefully and worth talking through with your GP.
What is ‘sleep hygiene’?
The phrase ‘sleep hygiene’ was first coined in the Seventies, and it’s shorthand for a set of behaviours and guidelines for creating the correct environment in which to get quality sleep.
Much of it sounds like common sense, but it’s alarmingly easy to slip into habits contrary to good sleep hygiene. There’s a comprehensive questionnaire online that will rate your sleep hygiene (tinyurl.com/d98nnm) but some of the most important points of good sleep hygiene can be summarised here:
A consistent bedtime: going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends, is one of the most important aspects of good sleep hygiene. It trains the body’s internal clock.
Napping can work to catch up on lost sleep, but it’s fairly crucial that naps are not taken late in the day, as they decrease what the scientists call ‘sleep drive’ and make short wave sleep harder to find.
Exercise as far from bedtime as possible. That doesn’t mean all rides have to happen in the morning, but a hard ride and sleep should be separated by at least three to four hours.
Cool and as dark as possible is the best state to have the bedroom in when you sleep. The ideal is between 16ºC and 21ºC, and most experts recommend a temperature towards the lower end of that range. Pitch black is best, as light is a powerful wake-up stimulus to the brain.
Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the late afternoon and evening. These two substances are powerful stimulants and the enemies of good sleep.
Try not to use electronic devices in bed. There is mounting evidence that the ‘blue light’ emitted by tablets and phones is especially disruptive to sleep.
Avoid heavy meals late at night. Again, the guideline is similar to the exercise rule; try to put at least three to four hours between when you eat the evening meal and bedtime.
If sleep is elusive, don’t lie there tossing and turning. Get up and spend 20 minutes or so on a boring task that doesn’t require much thought, then try and sleep again.
The original article by Simon Schofield first appeared in the August 6 issue of Cycling Weekly