Sleep your way to optimal recovery

While it is possible to survive on 5-6 hours of a sleep a night, when your goal is to build muscle and boost performance, you need a proper night’s sleep for optimal recovery – that’s 7-8 hours, at least!

Sleep is possibly the most important phase of an active individual’s post-exercise recovery period – it’s when the real growth and adaptation occurs.

Maximise your recovery throughout the remainder of the day with these top tips.

When you sleep your body enters a heightened anabolic (muscle-building) state as powerful hormones are released throughout the night – over 90% of your daily growth hormone (gH) supply is released during sleep, while scientific research points to a direct relationship between sleep duration and your levels of circulating testosterone.

It’s when the body enters this growth phase when muscles (and other tissues) damaged during exercise are repaired. Adequate sleep also restores the immune and nervous systems, both of which are stressed following intense or prolonged exercise.

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Sleep phases

There are two main types of sleep – non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Sleep can also be broken down into four stages or phases, with the first three occurring during NREM sleep and the fourth stage during REM sleep.

Stage 1: Relatively light sleep that lasts around 5-10 minutes at the start of a sleep cycle.
Stage 2: Lasts for approximately 20 minutes. The brain begins to produce bursts of rapid, rhythmic brainwave activity known as sleep spindles. Body temperature and heart rate also begin to drop.
Stage 3: Deep, slow brainwaves known as delta waves begin to emerge, which leads to a state of deep sleep that lasts for approximately 30 minutes.
Stage 4: The final sleep stage. This REM sleep stage is characterised by increased brain activity and a higher respiratory rate.

Sleep doesn’t progress through these stages in sequence, though, and fluctuates through the various levels several times throughout the night.

Growth phase

Muscles are most relaxed during phases of REM sleep. It’s also at this stage when blood flow to muscles increases as the demands of your internal organs are reduced. This aids the repair process as the blood shuttles vital nutrients – which we get from the food and supplements we eat – to the damaged tissues.

These nutrients include glycogen and the important building blocks of muscle tissue, namely amino acids, which are derived from digested protein. Amino acids work to repair the damage caused by weight training or exercise, which helps our muscles to grow back bigger and stronger.

However, after a few hours of sleep your body enters a state called nocturnal post-absorptive muscle catabolism, or NPMC. This happens every night when the natural release of gH stops and you run out of circulating amino acids.

In the past there was not much that could be done to stop or reduce this process, short of waking up and eating periodically throughout the night. However, these days slow release protein supplements are available that contain slowly digested proteins like casein. These products deliver a ‘trickle’ of amino acids for extended periods of time during the night to ensure an anabolic state is maintained for longer during the sleep cycle.

Serious consequences

Losing even an hour of sleep a night will lead to sleep debt and ultimately results in a host of negative effects. One of the more serious effects is a rise in the stress hormone cortisol, which is catabolic. Elevated levels may therefore interfere with optimal tissue repair and muscle growth.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels can also reduce your responsiveness to training and can lead to overtraining syndrome. This state also increases fat storage and can result in a loss of bone mass, along with depressed gH and testosterone production.

Various studies have also linked sleep deprivation with decreased aerobic endurance, reduced physical performance through impaired motor function, and increased ratings of perceived exertion. This can negatively impact on your mental state and reduces your willingness to train intensely.

Don’t limit your body’s ability to recover by avoiding these common mistakes.

Become a better sleeper

A few helpful tips to ensure a good night’s sleep include:

• Keeping your bedroom at a cool temperature (not cold) to help your body temperature drop to levels that induce sleep.

• A good quality mattress and pillow are also essential, as is developing a routine to follow before going to bed (like hitting the sack at the same time every night) as this will help to prepare your mind and body for sleep.

• Unplugging from the digital world and avoiding any screen time before bed goes a long way to help you sleep better.

• And avoid alcohol or stimulants before bed. Regardless of what your folks told you, a ‘nigh-cap’ is not going to make you settle faster.

• Lastly, avoid exercising late in the evening as your increased heart rate and elevated body temperature could hamper your ability to fall asleep quickly.