Cyclists gladly spend money to enhance performance. We buy carbon and titanium frames, components, and wheels. We spend hours with a bike fitter to find the optimum position. Most of us own a collection of cycling tech such as a power meter, heart rate monitor, and software to analyze all that data. Don’t forget the galaxy of mostly unproven dietary supplements that might (but probably won’t) offer a performance edge. Then there are all sorts of massage tools and recovery garments. There’s always something else to buy. But there’s one thing that if done correctly will enhance your performance more than all of that other stuff combined—and it’s free! It’s sleep and it’s the ultimate performance enhancer.
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Work and Recovery
Workouts don’t make you strong. In the short term, they make you weak. You know this because after every hard ride you get off the bike more tired than when you climbed on. Several days of hard workouts can leave you exhausted. A challenging workout stimulates your body to adapt. Your nervous system responds by saying, “Wow! That was difficult! I’m not used to that! I need to prepare for the next time she/he does that to me.” It’s during rest and recovery that you actually get stronger. Rest is what allows for that adaptation to occur. If you’re missing sleep then you can’t recover adequately and you won’t reap the benefits of hard work.
Sleep, Hormones, and Protein Synthesis
Your body becomes a busy construction site when you sleep. Anabolic (tissue building) hormones such as testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) are released during various phases of sleep, with deep sleep and REM sleep being especially important. These hormones facilitate collagen and protein synthesis resulting in stronger bones, muscles, and connective tissue.
Delayed or impaired sleep results in less testosterone and HGH being released. Impaired sleep short-circuits the adaptation process making you weak, slow, and fragile. Lack of sleep also contributes to weight gain, impaired insulin sensitivity, and poor cognition.
To be clear: Sleep is equally important to your athletic performance as hard work. The positive effects of sleep can’t be bought and they can’t be found anywhere else.
Best Sleep Practices
- Keep a routine sleep schedule. Your body prefers a normal routine. Try and keep a regular sleep schedule throughout the week, including weekends.
- Shut off the electronics 1-2 hours before bed. Phones, tablets, and laptops emit light that’s similar to sunlight. Your brain wakes up when exposed to it and this can disrupt your sleep. Read a book or magazine instead.
- Alcohol impairs sleep. Stop drinking 2-4 hours before bedtime, and limit the amount.
- Protein ingestion before bed boosts protein synthesis and improves recovery. Consider a whey or casein protein shake before bed, especially on hard training days.
- Short naps may help. Napping for 20-30 minutes between 1 and 4pm can aid with recovery. If you’re sleep-deprived then a nap can help make up for lost sleep.
By far, the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to recovery is getting more quality sleep. Use the tips above and make it a priority if you want to improve your cycling performance.