When looking to optimise our health and fitness there are a number of factors that each play a significant role in the outcome of our efforts. They include training, nutrition, recovery, sleep, mindset and relationships. In this article we’ll be taking a closer look at the importance of both sleep and recovery, and detailing simple steps you can take to improve them.
No matter who you are or what you do, there’s no question that sleep is vital for your health. It’s a time that allows our bodies to carry out many important processes including repairing muscles, consolidating memories and regulating hormones. How and how long we sleep impacts everything from our mood, appetite and decision making, to our athletic performance and ability to gain muscle or lose body fat. The effects of poor sleep can be felt and seen even after a single night, while consistently not getting enough sleep can have more serious and even fatal consequences.
Obviously there are many things that can lead to a poor night’s sleep, and some of those things are going to be beyond our control (new parents…we hear you, hang in there!) But there are definitely a number of simple steps we can take to improve the amount of sleep we get, and overall sleep quality.
A simple place to begin to improve total amount of sleep is to look at what time you are going to bed/waking up, and doing your best to make sure you give yourself the opportunity for a solid 8 hours of sleep, which means you’re more likely looking for 8.5 to 9.5 hours actually spent in bed. While busy lives and demanding schedules can make this a challenge, if you’re spending an hour or two each night watching TV or scrolling through your phone, it’s a simple fix – ditch the screens, and get to bed earlier.
Which leads us nicely onto sleep quality, which matters equally as much as sleep time. During a full sleep cycle the body goes through 4 different stages, each with an important role to play in helping us feel revitalised and refreshed the next day. When sleep quality is poor, sleep cycles are disrupted leaving us feeling tired, irritable and unable to perform.
You can begin to improve sleep quality by first making sure that your bedroom is properly set up for a good night’s sleep. It should be as dark as possible, cool and quiet, with no TV, phones, or laptops. You’ll then want to work toward a consistent bedtime routine, that begins 1-2 hours before actually going to bed with the purpose of winding down body and mind. This is not the time to watch TV, check emails or see what’s happening on Facebook. Instead you could consider listening to music, reading a book, chatting with your partner or doing some gentle stretching and mobility work.
Another simple step toward better sleep quality is to moderate your intake of caffeine during the day. Caffeine is central nervous system stimulant that suppresses the effect of a chemical called adenosine by blocking the receptors in the brain. Adenosine creates ‘sleep pressure’ and naturally builds throughout the day, so that by the evening we should be ready to fall asleep. So while caffeine can make us feel more energised, it does not actually provide any energy for the body to use, or stop adenosine from accumulating. Which means that when the effects wear off, we’re suddenly hit with a huge dose of ‘sleep pressure’, tiredness kicks in and our energy levels crash.
While caffeine does affect people differently depending on their genetics, it’s understood that the half life (the time it takes for half of the drug’s effect to wear off) of caffeine is typically 6 hours, so a coffee at three o’clock in the afternoon is still going to be having an effect on your system at nine o’clock at night – right about the time you’ll be looking to go to bed. Our advice for better sleep is to keep your intake of caffeine to 1-2 beverages drunk before midday, or consider switching to decaffeinated alternatives.
While improving sleep likely has the biggest impact on recovery, there are a handful of additional steps we can take to optimise our recovery between workouts and ultimately benefit more from our training. Training stresses the body’s physical and neurological systems to cause them to adapt to that stress, to become stronger, more efficient and better able to handle similar stresses in the future. That adaptation does not happen during exercise, it happens in the time afterwards while we are at rest.
Some of the body’s recovery processes include clearing the waste products of metabolism from our cells, replenishing energy stores, and the growth and repair of muscle tissue, all things that can be influenced by a sound recovery protocol.
A good place to start is with an appropriate cool down following your workout. This could include a slow walk, cycle or row and some mobility work such as foam rolling. Each of these activities encourage blood flow to the worked muscles, allowing waste products to be cleared away and for nutrients to be delivered. Nutrition and hydration also plays a key role in ensuring energy stores are replenished and that calories and nutrients are available for tissue growth and repair. While post-workout nutrition is heavily marketed, for most people with goals of simply getting fit and getting in shape, it need not be complicated. Drink water in accordance with your thirst following exercise, and eat a meal of whole minimally processed foods containing carbohydrate, protein and fat within 1-2 hours after your workout. For goals requiring more specific post workout protocols, talk to us about nutrition coaching.
Our bodies need rest in order to actualise the gains we are working so hard for in the gym. Without adequate rest our bodies become unable to recover fully from our workouts, performance decreases, fatigue builds and the risk of injury rises.
The number of rest days a person requires depends on a number of factors including, current training routine, type and intensity of exercise, age, other stresses/commitments (work/hobbies), injury status or illness, and genetics. If you’re brand new to CrossFit, you’ll likely do best to include up to 4 rest days in a 7 day period to strike the right balance between enough training stress to cause adaptation, and enough rest to allow for full recovery.
It’s OK to train when you’re sore from a workout, providing the soreness isn’t crippling (in which case you may have overdone it a touch), in fact getting moving again will actually encourage blood flow and help the recovery process, which is one of the reasons taking an active rest day involving a low intensity activity such as an easy walk, swim or cycle can be particularly beneficial.
As you become more accustomed to training, the intensity of your workouts will increase and the number of rest days needed can be reduced, but even for the seasoned athlete there still needs to be the right balance of training and rest to make progress. Getting the balance right requires paying close attention to your body and looking out for signs of being under recovered.
Signs that you may be getting the balance wrong and edging toward over-training would be the appearance of persistent niggles and joint pain, consistently lacking energy, noticing a performance drop off in workouts, for example not being able to work as hard, or move as much weight as you normally would, experiencing disrupted sleep and a loss of motivation to train.
In these cases the best thing to do is back off your training (you can still work out, just keep the intensity low and focus instead on quality movement). Take additional complete rest days as well as active rest days and pay particular attention to reducing stress in other areas of your life whilst maintaining good nutrition.