It’s puzzling to me that a life-sustaining biggie—as critical as food, water, and oxygen—should be a challenge for so many of us. It’s the linchpin for such essential body processes as digestion, hormonal balance, and immunity, among others. And for cyclists and other active types, it’s a surprisingly powerful factor in performance. (Track your training progress with this free tool: Fit Tracker.) The time you spend snoozing is when the body works behind the scenes to churn out key hormones that help repair and rebuild muscle, so you get fitter and stay injury-free. It’s also when your brain solidifies cognitive skills that allow you to, say, finesse a paceline or know when you should shift gears.
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One study found that getting two hours less sleep than normal impairs your ability to perform physical tasks to a level similar to having pounded a few beers. You may already be familiar with that feeling, but it probably hasn’t landed you on any podiums. And it’s not exactly safe. “The more sleep-deprived you are,” says sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, “the slower your reaction time is,” an extra level of risk when you’re navigating a traffic-snarled commute, a tight pack, or pedestrians on a towpath.
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Lack of sleep can mess with your head in other ways, too. When you’re dragging, “your perception of a ride will change,” Breus says. “It won’t feel like as much fun and will seem like more of an effort.” What’s more, some research links getting less sleep to an increased perception of pain. In other words, you’ll feel like you’re hitting your physical limit faster than you would if you were well rested.
As an athlete, I should find that sleep comes easier than it actually does. Physical activity has long been associated with more restful slumber. But I’m not convinced that the exercise-sleep connection always delivers on its promise. When I mention this apparent disconnect to Breus, he confirms my suspicions: Athletes may be extra vulnerable to sleep problems, particularly if we’re training hard. “One of the first signs of overtraining is insomnia,” he says. Even if you’re not putting in big training hours, chances are your riding schedule is fairly regimented, especially if you’re also juggling a job and a family.
“Athletes tend to be on a set schedule,” says W. Christopher Winter, MD, medical director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. “They have a wonderfully established internal body clock.” But it’s precisely because our clocks tick along so predictably that we get screwed up, he says. Even the tiniest disruption can feel huge if your sleeping, eating, and riding habits are set in stone. Daylight saving time, a newborn, even the temperature in your bedroom can affect the quality and quantity of your sleep—and, ultimately, your riding.
“Traveling to events also can work against you,” says Winter, whose research focuses on athletes and their globe-trotting habits. It’s not only jet lag that takes a toll. According to a recent study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, 65 percent of athletes don’t sleep well the night before a big event. Of those, 80 percent have a hard time nodding off and 72 percent obsess about the event.
It’s hardly surprising that caffeine and alcohol are so ingrained in cycling culture. Perking up with a preride espresso or winding down with a cold IPA may seem like good solutions for elusive or lost sleep, but both prevent you from reaching the deepest stages of slumber, which offer the greatest performance benefits. And because so many sports drinks, bars, and gels contain caffeine, there’s a chance you may be getting too much of the stimulant without even realizing it.
Rest For The Weary
After I hash out my sleep habits with Breus and Winter, the reasons for my struggles seem pretty straightforward. I have a lot going on at home and at work, and when I was focusing on racing, I’d cram my limited free time with hard workouts. It also turns out I break several cardinal rules of sleep hygiene, a term experts use to describe slumber-promoting habits. My glass of wine with dinner often extends into a nightcap, I don’t stick to a regular schedule, and I have a television in my bedroom.
The TV is the one I’m convinced is the most egregious—for years I’ve blamed my insomnia on my husband’s addiction to Seinfeld reruns. But Breus admits his wife falls asleep every night with the TV on, and suggests I focus on changing behavior that is within my control.
It’s a leap for me, but letting that go allows me to discover that the some of the other bedtime rules the experts recommend actually work. For instance, now that I know the extent to which alcohol inhibits deep sleep, I limit my wine to dinner. Surprise—it helps.
And once I give the sleep monitors a chance, they point to maybe the most important change I need to make. In the end, the quality of my sleep is actually pretty good—I log plenty of time in the stages that are most restorative. But the amount of time I’m conked out usually comes in under the recommended seven hours. It’s clear I need to be more disciplined about getting to bed earlier.
That one’s not so easy, but I’m working on it, and now that I have a better handle on why I’m so chronically tired, I’m more determined than ever to make sleep a priority. You can, too. (Related: Can You Buy Sleep? )
Three ways to not lose sleep over your big event
Fake out anxiety
You may obsess about blowing a tire, but when you can’t settle down the night before an event, the fact that you’re not sleeping starts to keep you awake. Winter suggests a psychotherapy trick called paradoxical intention, in which you defuse anxiety by deliberately thinking about what’s causing it. “I ask myself, ‘How long can I relax here in bed with my eyes closed and not sleep?’” he says. “I never make it past five or 10 minutes.”
About 72 hours before your big day, adjust your schedule so it’s more closely aligned with the event’s, Winter says. If your ride starts in the morning, try to get in some early rides. Plus: What to Eat The Week Before Race Day
Sidestep jet lag
Not only does jet lag make you tired, it may also cause your body to rebel in other ways. “It can lead to nausea, loss of appetite, and other digestion problems,” Winter says. Not so great for bike riding. Try to give yourself five to seven days to adapt to the new time zone. If you can’t, research has found that exercise helps reset the body clock. So doing a short, easy workout when you get to your destination can ease your transition.