Sleep Deprivation and Training Are a No-Win Combination

Frank Sole
February 14, 2017

Sleep deprivation and training for endurance athletes seem to run conjointly. In our tribal culture, lack of sleep is even worn like a medal: “I was up at 4 a.m. and ran 10 miles on only five hours of sleep.”

But is this best for the athlete to continue to push through training at all costs? We can understand sleep deprivation as a training tool in the military. The idea is to test the individual and troops alike. Can they function and make sharp, necessary decisions in a deteriorated state?

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation and training are a no-win combination.

In the arena of triathlon and endurance training, the topic of sleep deprivation is important not only for training, but also for the overall health and well-being of the athlete.

Lack of sleep in this country for the average adult is running at an alarming level. The Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that 40% of Americans get fewer than five hours of sleep per night, while 75% suffer from some form of sleep disorder.

Why is sleep deprivation eventually destructive for the athlete? First, we disrupt the natural circadian rhythm of our body, which can create a litany of ongoing health issues including the body’s ability to burn fat, which can disrupt one’s appetite.

Sleep deprivation has been known to compromise memory retention, disrupt the immune system to heal itself, and compromise the ability to combat higher levels of stress hormones, which have been linked to heart disease, irregular heartbeat, higher blood pressure and mood. And, if you have been around anyone training for an Ironman after a long week of training, their mood is suspect.

Strength in Recovery

Athletes must avoid sleep deprivation at all costs. The benefits of appropriate amounts of sleep overwhelmingly favor an athlete who is rested, rejuvenated, restored and ready to train and race.

sleep deprivation

Sleep aids in the body’s recovery.

Optimal sleep helps the body to recover from the day’s training and life’s activities. Sleep creates  balance in hormones and testosterone to restore order in organs, strengthen and rebuild muscle.

The immune system – during periods of deep sleep known as long-term potentiation (LTP) and  growth hormones – goes into a full-blown restoration process. This prepares the body to take on the next day’s training load.

Performance Declines

Triathletes, many times left to their own devices, will train at intensity levels that leave them fatigued, resulting in training and performance declines or plateaus. Marc Evans states in Principles of Triathlon Training that “sleep is often and undervalued.

Some triathletes might even fail to appreciate the physiological importance of quality of sleep.” Rich Roll, considered one of the world’s best endurance athletes, makes sleep a priority. “A great night of sleep is the world’s greatest performance enhancer,” he says.

Athletes need to monitor their sleeping habits. A daily survey can be very useful to help monitor their habits. Ask these simple questions: How many hours of sleep did you get; what level of sleep did you attain; how were your eating habits and stress levels; what was your resting heartbeat.

Sleep deprivation, over a long period, can have devastating side effects on overall health and well-being. This is generally due to the continual weakening of the immune system, as well as a decreasing number of white blood cells and their ability to perform healing work.

Your very first order of business is to best ensure your health and well-being to avoid injuries and illness. Monitor, adjust and adapt your workload based on family and job responsibilities to ensure you’re getting appropriate sleep.

There are perils of sleep deprivation, and it runs considerably deeper than just poor training and race day performance. I heard it once said that it is in your best interest to avoid sleep debt. Otherwise be prepared to pay both the debt and the interest.

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