By Christopher Cudworth
My training companion and I determined a few years back, when we were dumb enough to think such things, that the only thing standing in the way of increased training and better performance was the time we spent sleeping.
See, our party schedules were both well-planned and spontaneous. Running with a pack of equally motivated young women, we drank and stayed up late whenever we could.
Now, consider that our training plan called for mileage between 60-80 miles per week. That meant we were averaging between 8-11 miles a day. We usually ran those miles hard too. We called our new training plan 6+6. Do all your training at six minute pace and cut the nightly sleep commitment down to six hours a night. That should give us plenty of time to get fit, right?
You know how it ended. We both got sick in under two weeks. The common cold sits in waiting for people who do stupid things. Breaking down your body’s germ resistance by engaging in hard training and lack of sleep is the absolute best way to get sick. Guaranteed.
Coming out of our collective colds, we were doing a slow six-miler together and spitting green phlegm all over the ground. Hacking, coughing, and between it all laughing that our “plan” had failed so miserably.
“What were we thinking?” my friend asked. “You gotta have sleep to train.”
“We weren’t thinking,” I agreed. “We were doing. There’s a difference.”
Sometimes living with a lack of sleep is a necessary demand. At times when your schedule has you working late and rising early, there is no choice but to forge ahead. Here are few tips on how to get through a sleep-deprived day:
1. Drink water. The best thing to do is to get plenty of hydration. You don’t want to be both tired and dehydrated. That’s an additional stress on the body.
2. Take a pill. Taking a light pain reliever like a single ibuprofen seems to help get you through segments of the day. If you’re achey and tired a pain reliever can help you get through the humps of fatigue or crankiness. That takes away part of the perception and real physical effects of fatigue.
3. Take some zinc. To ward off potential cold germs, get some zinc pills such as Cold-Eaze. They help prevent cold germs from jumping into your weakened sinuses.
4. Eat light, healthy and often. Instead of gorging yourself at lunch because you’re tired and hungry, spread your eating across the face of the day. Small meals are easier to digest and don’t require so much energy. Also go light on the sugars and caffeine. They just lead to energy crashes. Go smooth and predictable. Stay in touch with your body.
5. Conserve energy at the right times. Keep conversations and social interaction to a minimum when you’re sleep-deprived. If you have a meeting to attend, plan your comments wisely and work on remaining focused where it counts.
6. If you can, sneak in a nap. Get to your car and find a quiet spot to park where you can recline the seat and catch some zzzzzs. Set your phone alarm or watch to wake you up in case you fall into a deep sleep. If you commute by train, you know what to do. Get comfortable and close your eyes. It helps.
7. Alter your schedule. If you have the flexibility to do so, alter your schedule for the day. Being sleep-deprived puts you at risk for poor judgment and mistakes anyway.
8. Be positive in your head. Overcoming a state of sleep deprivation requires focus, concentration and positivity. Be careful how much you talk about how little sleep you got. Thoughts like that tend to be self-affirming. Instead focus on a checklist of things you set out to do and literally mark them off the list as you go.
What to do when you get home…
The temptation is the crash and take a drool nap. And you can do that if you must. But be smart too. The goal once you get home after a day of sleep deprivation is to set yourself up for a night of much better, longer sleep. You can’t really make up for sleep lost, but you can fortify yourself for the coming day or week.
So get things done that need doing, and relax. But be careful not to snork off watching TV. Then you’ll wake up and go to bed and perhaps find yourself unable to get back to sleep. You’ve used up that precious melatonin that helps you get to sleep and you’re into the danger zone of not being able to doze off.
So it’s much better to turn in at 8 or 9 o’clock and get to real bed rather than messing with the risk of falling asleep and having to get up and start it all over again. That path can lead to insomnia in both the short and long term.
Developing good sleep habits
1. Make it a habit. Learning what you need to do to get good sleep is critical in both the short and long term. Eliminating distractions like televisions, iPads or iPhones is important to developing a consistent, predictable foundation for getting to sleep and staying asleep.
2. Turn it all off! Don’t let vibration alerts from your phone wake you up intermittently. Turn the TV off. Background noise from a TV is not consistent and can even be subliminally disturbing.
3. Communicate with your companion. Some nights you need to be left untouched and undisturbed. Tell your companion if you need to rest without being touched or snuggled. Sometimes “too tired” means a need for quiet with no distractions.
These tips are all designed to help you cope with times when you’ve missed out on sleep. If you’re in a situation where sleep deprivation is chronic and consistent, you’ll need to be even more diligent about the steps above because stress builds up in your system when you don’t get enough sleep. That’s when bad colds creep in and interrupt everything from hour work schedule to your workout schedule. And that’s not where you want to be.
Sleep aids are effective tools for overcoming broken sleep habits and for dealing with periods of high stress or restlessness that impact our health and undercut our ability to cope. Taking a sleeping pill is no small matter though. There’s an “entrance” and and “exit” period on both ends of the evening, and you need to plan for that by being near and ready to go to bed when sleepiness hits, and to give yourself time to emerge from the effects of the pill in the morning.
Anxiety and sleep
I clearly recall the period when for reasons of stress as caregiver to a wife with cancer, I was prescribed Lorazepam to combat anxiety and help with sleep. It is a subtle yet powerful little drug. It helps with anxiety, a common sleep disturbance.
The little pills helped, and the side effects were not profound.
Yet when I went riding on Saturday morning it was clear there was something missing or messed up in my blood chemistry. I was sluggish and tired feeling, unable and unwilling to respond to riding challenges.
After a while I gave up trying to be the cyclist I was before that period of stress and broken sleep. While I was on that drug it was important to be smart in my riding, rather than tough. I elected to ride for different reasons, and eliminated competition from my schedule. The more important goals were getting good sleep, taking care of my obligations in real life and using running and riding as personal rewards and stress relievers.
Still, you have to learn some lessons again and again.
Just last weekend we were out late at a party and I tried to get enough sleep but I woke up feeling “sleep sore” inside and out. It’s weird feeling knowing you’re basically healthy but lacking enough sleep. There’s a fatigue inside your chest that makes breathing harder. You can quickly get a sore throat, a warning sign that a cold is pending. You might crave more water and more sweets. In other words, your body is out of balance and riding or running in that condition is not going to see you at your best.
Sure enough, about 8 miles into a morning ride at 20mph into a west wind my legs gave out. I didn’t blow up, but I just didn’t have it. My riding companion rolled off the front and the gap between us widened with every 10th of a mile. Finally she looked back and held up. When I caught her I apologized but she understood. We’ve all been there at one time or another.
The rest of the ride went fine. So it’s hard to tell sometimes how much poor performance from lack of sleep is physical and how much is mental. In either case, it does not generally add up to good results.
Sure, for a big race we can “get up” for the event and sleep doesn’t matter. I’ve run plenty of PRs on far less rest than I would have liked. But that’s the price of getting excited for a race. Yet your recovery program should include plenty of sleep and rest to help your body restore is physical and mental potential.
Getting proper sleep is absolutely vital to short and long term performance in whatever you do. For those of us who run, ride and swim it is both an investment and an insurance policy. The investment part stores up fitness for performance. The insurance part protects against getting sick.
And you can take that program to the bank. Or to bed. Whichever works for you.