The Value Of Sleep

An performance enhancer I’m hoping to work on happens to also be one of the more under-used out there.

I’m talking about sleep, of course.

As I get older and take up new levels of athleticism, I’m learning that sleep is much more than just maintenance, or a nightly necessity.

As anyone who has recently parented young children, worked alternating shifts, or pulled an all-nighter can tell you, the brain has a pretty hard time functioning on little-to-no sleep. As it turns out, so does the body that carries that brain .

Professional athletes nap. They do this not just because their travel schedules tend to short them on night-time sleep, or because a post-game dinner might take place at 10pm, but also because the restorative properties of sleep benefit them in their performance. Whether it’s healing from a particularly tough workout, or series thereof, or just allowing a tired body to recoup a little further, a nap supplementing a night’s sleep can work wonders for their muscles, connective tissues, and all those systems in the body that make them the elite athletes they are.

We’ve all heard by now that getting enough sleep can prevent weight gain, too. As I learned all too well back when I had untreated sleep apnea, a tired body commands food to stay awake. A person gets used to feeding themselves carbs just to stay awake — and usually, that includes a lot of sugar. To make it worse, too little sleep can be correlated with insulin resistance. You can shove yourself full of caffeine and sugar,  to stay awake, but it’s not doing your body or mind any favours.

I’ve long thought that of us humans, there are those who can nap, and those who can not. Just ask your friends, and you’ll see there are two camps of people — those who rave about the nap, and those who wish they could.

Nappers can grab a nap, long or short, coffee or not, and wake up feeling energized and refreshed. Us non-nappers, however, have a much harder time waking up from a nap and getting going again. I love the idea of a nap, but unless I’m sick or have a booming migraine (which is essentially the same thing), I’ve just not been a napping kind of a person. Non-nappers often feel worse after a nap than we did heading into it — groggy, dopey and grumpy.

Sometimes, when I’m particularly tired I’ll lay down on the bed or couch and chill out for 10 to 20 minutes. Even if closing my eyes for a few minutes in that time doesn’t actually include sleeping, it can be rejuvenating to pause for even this short period of time. The trick, of course, is getting up to get going again.

In my relatively cushy, serene life — working a day job, commuting just 20 minutes each way, and living life without children — I get about 7 hours of sleep a night. Sometimes more, sometimes a bit less. On weekends, I might luck out and catch a longer sleep, if not a sleep-in.

I realize that this means I’m only getting the minimum of sleep recommended to stay healthy and function well. I’m fortunate that the sleep quality is pretty good most nights, especially now that I’ve chased back the sleep apnea.

But when I’m pushing my body hard to perform for a duathlon race season, ie from late-April to mid-September, I should give it a little more restoration time.

And so, late this summer, I undertook to nap.

Well, it’s good I tried, but in truth, I successfully did it twice. On the bright side, I felt like a million bucks each time. Turns out when you’re absolutely dog-tired and run down, even a non-napper’s body will wake up from a nap in a better state than it went in.

It’s not like there’s much time to spare for naps — after work, I head home, dealing with daily household administration (aka errands and walking the dog) and then proceed to my workout. At best, I have 15 minutes to chill out before the workout. Barring the acquisition of a napping desk, I’m not going to get much room in my current schedule to rest up.

I’m hoping to get into some morning workouts over the offseason, which will give me more time to live a little after work — and that will certainly include naps. On weekends, I can definitely stand to squeeze in more time to rest and restore. Certainly on race days, I should be trying to grab a bit of sleep in the afternoon to let my body recuperate — and make up for a sleepless night before the race morning I just had.

The internets, of course, have drowned us all in conflicting information about what constitutes the perfect nap — make it long, keep it short, sleep immediately after a shot of espresso, or only before a certain time of day, or only on a couch or only in a bed. So a person might be fooled into worrying that they had to know more and follow rigid guidelines in order to nap effectively. Rubbish, I say.

So next year, time to aim higher and shoot for more napping. In the meantime, I’m trying to ensure that my 7 hours of sleep a night is consistent, or even heading towards 8.  And as the days get shorter and colder this fall, and the fireplace gets lit, I’m sure a cozy nap or two will also manifest. Or at least I hope so.



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