The Exhausted Athlete’s Guide To Sleep And Recovery: 10 Golden Rules

Work, travel, family, household chores… and training for endurance sport. It’s a lot to ask of 24 hours a day. If you struggle to fit everything in, or find yourself burning the candle at both ends, stop to consider how your lack of sleep is affecting your body.


The gold standard of sleep is 7-9 hours, with at least one hour of that before midnight. And the more you ask of your body in training, the more rest and recovery you need to offset the stress of your sport.


If you sleep through the night, wake up buzzing with energy, and never have any trouble sleeping then feel free to click away from this article now.


Still reading? We’ve got your back. Here are 10 ways to improve your sleep and recovery - starting tonight.


You Can’t Afford To Scrimp On Sleep


A good night’s sleep might sound like a luxury, but it’s actually a fundamental necessity for your physical and mental health. Don’t think of solid sleep as the icing on the cake, an added bonus on easier days. Schedule it in as a priority, just as you do your training, nutrition, water intake, or stretching.


Consistent good sleep does more than give you enough energy to tackle training sessions. It boosts your immune system, helps to balance your hormones, and can even help you resist junk food cravings. Endurance athletes who get enough good quality sleep tend to have fewer colds, recover faster from training, and maintain a leaner body weight.


So why do so many of us miss out on the one thing which should be readily available to everyone?


Identify Your Sleep Barriers


For some of us, the reason for our poor sleep will be obvious: young children, noisy neighbours, or a partner who gets up a lot earlier than we need to.


But broken sleep isn’t always so easy to figure out. If you regularly find it difficult to fall asleep, wake several times in the night, or find it hard to get back to sleep when that happens, you need to do some detective work.


Is your room set up for good sleep? It should be cool, quiet, and completely dark. Eliminate light from outside, and make sure there are no lights from digital displays in the room.


Do you take your phone into the bedroom? Stop that - tonight. Leave it downstairs (so you’re not tempted to have a quick look if you wake in the night). The light from phone screens is disruptive to our brains, and it’s just too easy to stay up late scrolling social media.


Do you have a good wind-down routine? Try going 30-60 minutes before bed without TV, phone, or computer screens. Use this time to potter about tidying the house, or have a bath or shower. Or go to bed and read - reading a book doesn’t stimulate the brain in the way a phone screen does.


Are you stressed or anxious? Worries about work, finances, relationships, family, health (you name it!) can certainly keep you awake or lead to poor quality sleep. Try writing down anything that’s worrying you. If your stress levels are really bad, seek help and support. You don’t need us to tell you that chronic stress is bad for your health.


Lack of sleep impacts our physiology in several significant ways. It affects how our body metabolises glucose, and have a negative impact on our ability to produce human growth hormone (HGH) and other anabolic hormones which help us to recover from exercise and repair tissue.


When we are sleep deprived, training or racing is more likely to feel difficult (even at less intense levels), and it’s easy to see how this could lead to slower race times or even a DNF.


And when we’re exhausted, we are much less likely to maintain good form, great posture, and all those skills we’ve worked on in training. In fact, sleep deprivation is a key factor behind injuries and accidents during sport.


Here are 10 ways to start getting better sleep so you can be a stronger, fitter, healthier athlete with a longer career ahead of you.


  1. Have a regular sleep and wake time (even at weekends). This will not only support your circadian rhythms, but will get your body and brain into the habit of anticipating the treat of relaxing sleep
  2. Avoid alcohol in the evening (it might make you feel sleepy, but leads to lighter sleep).
  3. Limit your caffeine intake if you struggle to sleep, and experiment with cutting it out completely for 6 hours before bedtime. This includes coffee, tea, sodas, energy drinks, and stimulant sports supplements.
  4. Aim to shut down all screens (including your phone) 60 minutes before bedtime.
  5. Don’t take your phone into the bedroom, and turn off or cover up any digital lights and displays in the room.
  6. A small amount of carbs before bed can promote a sleepy feeling and deeper sleep, but avoid sugary carbohydrate foods. Porridge oats are a good choice.
  7. Eat foods containing tryptophan - the amino acid used to make the neurotransmitter serotonin. You’ll find tryptophan in poultry (especially turkey), eggs, and milk.
  8. Have a cup of herbal tea - try camomile or valerian root tea. The warmth of the tea plus the relaxing herbs could help you sleep, and the ritual of making the hot drink can become part of your wind-down routine.
  9. If you suffer with broken sleep, have a chair in your bedroom. Rather than lying awake in bed staring at the ceiling, get out of bed and sit in the chair. Get back into bed when you feel sleepy. Your brain will learn that bed is for sleeping, not struggling to sleep.
  10. Have a shower before bed: a warm shower in cold weather, and a cool shower on hot nights.

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