The training we engage in as endurance athletes is the cornerstone of athletic performance, but to truly achieve our potential, we need to optimise our sleep for triathlon. You could have the world’s greatest, most accomplished coach for an hour a day, but this still gives you 23 hours a day to get everything else wrong. These are what we call the supporting habits; sleep, nutrition, mindfulness, recovery, strength work and more which may be specific to the individual.
If we imagine a pyramid with the most important habit at the bottom, and the most superfluous at the top, sleep would be slap bang at the bottom of the pyramid. Nobody would expect someone to perform to their best after four hours of sleep.
It’s literally free fitness. I cannot make this any clearer. If I was offering you money for nothing, you’d be rightly suspicious, but we can genuinely get free fitness gains by getting more sleep, as long as you’re putting in the training that is! This is due to the general adaptation syndrome (GAP) as described by Hans Selys , which without getting into the weeds too much, tells us that after we shock the body with training, our systems will then try to recover, and rebuild to handle that stressor better in future. If we don’t allow for that resistance phase where our body adapts to the stimulus with stronger muscles and an improved cardiovascular system, we’re simply pummelling our body with more and more training until it breaks.
By optimising our sleep for triathlon, we are allowing our bodies to better adapt to the stresses we place upon it, so our tissues can grow back stronger, allowing for improved performance. It’s free fitness.
The Early Start
All triathletes are short on time. Yes, even the pros. They all want to squeeze as much as they can into their week, to gain as much fitness as they can. The classic way to maximise hours in the day is simply to get up earlier. Become one of those people who gets in from their run at 6AM, showering and eating breakfast before getting the kids ready for school. You just have to set the alarm for 4:30, pull yourself out of bed, put you running shoes on and get out the door. Easy, right?
Well, optimising sleep for triathlon is far more than when you set your alarm for. The first few times you try it, you’ll likely feel buoyed by this new experience, and revel in the smug feeling as you sit down at your desk with a productive morning already behind you. After a few days of this the enthusiasm will start to wain, and any soft object you feel you could lay down on is going to become incredibly appealing around 2PM. There is a lot more to managing our sleep schedule around our training than just getting up earlier.
The Early Bedtime
Whether you wake up at 8AM or 4AM, you still need around 8 hours sleep a night. The exact number is up for debate as it depends on the individual, but 8 hours is about right for most. If you want to join the 5AM, or even 4AM club and the benefits that come with it, you simply need to go to bed sooner.
Some simple maths shows us that to wake up at 4AM feeling empowered and ready for the day we’d need to be in bed not long after 8PM. This isn’t going to be appealing for many, and is more an example of why 4AM wake up calls aren’t really sustainable for most people. However if we want to be up at 5, we need to be in bed for 9.
This is a lot more realistic, but will involve a level of sacrifice. If we want to be in bed ready to sleep for 9, we probably need to start winding down not long after 8. Some people haven’t even finished their dinner by this time. If the only window in the day we have to train is from 5AM, we need to cut down on the Netflix, pub, xbox, internet and reading to ensure we’re tucked up in bed ready to drop off around 9.
This will no doubt elicit a knee jerk reaction from many. How can they be expected to give up their well earned me time in the evenings? Of course, I’m not forcing anyone to do anything, but if done right, triathlon training can become its me time in itself. Watching videos on the turbo, listening to audiobooks on your run, getting away from the kids for an hour in the pool. Finding a club or group which swims early in the morning is even a way to fit in some social time. You’ve probably spend most of your life since you were a teenager staying up late for no particular reason, so try an earlier bedtime and see how it work for you.
You may be looking at these numbers, doing the sums in your head, and deciding that you simply can’t fit in eight hours of sleep a night and fit in the training you “need”. Not everyone can fit 15 hours of training into their week, sometimes you need to engage with reality and accept that with your current circumstances, you’ve maxed out your weekly hours.
No, this isn’t a case of how often you should change your sheets, it’s more about your sleep environment. We’re talking about a cool room temperature, some airflow, minimal light from outside or electronic sources and minimal noise. Now this could seem laughable to someone with small children or a partner that snores like a chainsaw, but setting ourselves up for a good night’s sleep is paramount to optimising sleep for triathlon.
Think back to some of the best nights of sleep you’ve ever had. I reckon they most likely ticked a lot of the above boxes. Some of this will no doubt be down to feeling tired from the journey there or simply feeling a lack of responsibility, but it goes to show that there’s a lot more to a good night’s sleep than hours slept.
I’m not going to get into too much depth on this one, there are a lot of people far more knowledgable on this field than I am. There is a factsheet from the NHS available here.
For those of us who enjoy the luxury of control over our evenings, it’s worth slowing yourself down in the 45-30 minutes before bedtime. This means no doom scrolling the news, avoiding highly stressful films, not reading work emails, getting into arguments online or anything else which will cause a stress response, no matter how small.
There are many who say you should avoid blue light before bedtime. This has started to become questioned in recent years, but it’s true that it’s probably not doing us any good to stare into a rectangle of light for an hour before we go to bed. However, I’m a pragmatist. We live in the 21st century, and use our electronic devices for all manner of tasks. My other half currently lives five hours behind me, I’m not going to tell her I’m ignoring her for an hour before I go to bed, in the small window we have when neither of us are working, I need to be realistic. However, I’m going to try to read (without a backlight) instead of staring at social media or watching videos, and do my best to avoid anything emotive.
Phases of Sleep
Many of us will be familiar with the different phases of sleep, light, deep, and REM (rapid eye movement). Even if we haven’t read about them, we will feel infinitely groggier when awoken at 1:30AM relative to dozing off for a few minutes. Deep sleep is the most restorative time, where our body triggers most of the mechanisms associated with adaptation to exercise. However, most people will only spend 2-3 hours at most in deep sleep each night, and the body will only generally enter a deep sleep between around 10PM and 2AM. If we’re not crawling into bed until 1:30AM after binge watching our latest TV series, our body is going to have very little chance to actually get any fitter.
While I don’t encourage athletes to start obsessing over how much time they spend in each sleep phase, it’s still worth keeping in consideration when you plan your sleeping habits. Not all sleep is created equal.
There are a number of sleep trackers on the market which can help us optimise our sleep for triathlon. However, the usefulness of these devices is up for debate. Yes, they can give us an insight into a number of metrics, but how many of these are actionable? If you’re following all of the basic steps but you’re still getting warnings, is this going to do much except cause us more stress? Some will give us sleep scores, and it can be interesting seeing the effect that alcohol, eating before bed and hydration status affects this, but after a time we’re unlikely to learn much more. Many who have used these trackers wake up feeling great only to see a poor sleep score, which can knock the wind out of their sails.
Using them is a personal choice, but I would only recommend them in the way that I recommend people track their food. Do it for a short time to give you an insight into things you may not have considered and to help you develop some healthy habits, then step away from actively tracking the data when you feel you’ve learned all you can.
Who doesn’t love a good nap? If you got up very early for a workout, are starting to crash at 2PM with the ability to take a nap, I’d recommend you do so. Not only will they give you more energy for the work/training you have lined up the rest of the day, it will also improve your mental focus. If I’m really struggling for focus at my laptop, I know that spending the next 30 minutes having a nap is going to be more productive than whatever else I could try to fit in with that time.
For many endurance athletes, coffee is a way of life. A morning isn’t complete without the squeal of an espresso machine, and they can’t imagine a ride without a stop for coffee. They also see this as a way to manage on less sleep during the day, as they feel they can function as well on five hours of sleep with three cups of coffee throughout the morning as they can on eight hours of quality sleep.
However, caffeine is simply a stimulant, and does not replicate the restorative process from sleep. We don’t truly understand what happens to the brain and body during sleep, but we do know it can’t be replicated with caffeine. If an office worker skimps on the sleep and compensates with coffee, rather than giving their brain the time it needs to recover, they simply make bad decisions faster than they would without the caffeine.
I’m not suggesting caffeine is bad or shouldn’t be used to help get you ready for that 5:30 pool session, simply that it’s not a replacement for a good night’s sleep.
Sleep is absolutely imperative for triathlon performance, and becomes even more important as your training volume increases. If there are two takeaways I want you to take away from this, it’s to aim for between 7-8 hours of sleep a day, and not to compromise on sleep to squeeze an extra training session in. Most professional athletes are asleep before 9PM to facilitate all the training they do. To try and replicate the training methods you read about without a solid foundation of sleep is destined for failure.