Perfecting the ultimate recovery modality, sleep!

Sleep for athletes

I recently had an athlete ask me “what’s the best way to recover, should I be wearing compression socks all the time? How about my Normatec boots?? Should I add in stretching into the routine?” All very valid questions, but my number one answer for promoting recovery...sleep. As athletes, we are constantly looking for ways to get marginal gains, but oftentimes at the expense of the fundamentals. Nothing is going to promote recovery better than good ol fashioned high quality sleep. More sleep never hurts, but the quality of that sleep is an important factor as well. Perfecting sleep hygiene can be just as challenging as acing that set of VO2max intervals, especially in this fast paced, screen driven society we live in today. There’s a fundamental triad in sport and health that contains exercise (training), nutrition and sleep. Training and nutrition tend to get the most attention, but now it’s sleep's turn. Follow these tips to help achieve your dreams, both on the bike and under the covers. 

Getting sufficient sleep duration as well as quality of sleep that will be restorative can be quite the challenge. The CDC states “insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic.” As an athlete, sleep becomes even more important to recover from the additional training stress. Sleep is cyclical and this is one of the reasons duration becomes very important. There are four stages of sleep. N1 or the transitional stage, occurs first when dozing off and may not occur again throughout the night if sleep is uninterrupted. N2 is the following stage, also known as light sleep. During this stage, core temperature drops, muscles relax and breathing/heart rate slows. The majority of sleep occurs in this stage. Following stage 2 is N3, otherwise known as deep sleep. During this stage pulse and muscle tone continue to decrease along with changes in brain activity. Deep sleep is thought to be restorative and is essential for muscle repair and bodily growth. After deep sleep, REM sleep occurs. In this final stage brain activity is just as high as in a wakeful state, most dreaming occurs and this stage is vital for cognitive functions such as memory, learning and creativity. Following REM sleep, the cycle restarts at N2 and proceeds in this pattern until waking up. On average, each cycle will last about 90 minutes and that is how one might come to the conclusion that athletes need about 9 hours of sleep. 9 hours theoretically allows for 6 sleep cycles, allowing for more time in both Deep and REM sleep, arguably the most restorative stages of the sleep cycle. 


As an athlete, shooting for around 9 hours of sleep is ideal, but there are many factors that can impact the restfulness of a night of sleep. The first and foremost is circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. Disruption to your natural circadian rhythm is a sure fire way to cause disruption to your sleep. Two easy steps to protect your circadian rhythm are getting direct sunlight upon waking up, as this prevents melatonin release, and avoiding blue light once the sun has set, in order to improve melatonin release. There are many hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout the circadian cycle and with melatonin being vital to sleep, disruptions in production can cause restlessness deep into the night. The use of screens in particular can do a lot of damage to melatonin production due to blue light emitting LED lights. Blue light is at the extreme end of the spectrum, closest in wavelength and energy to UV radiation. Exposure to that end of the spectrum signals to our bodies that the sun is up and melatonin production should cease in order for us to be alert. However, this can be problematic once the sun actually has set yet circadian rhythm is responding as if it is daytime. To prevent this from causing a delay in sleep time, add a blue light blocking feature to your screen or device or better yet, wear blue light blocking glasses to keep melatonin levels high. Another useful trick is that going camping for at least 48 hours can hard reset your circadian rhythm (leave the screens at home). Giving some thought to the fluctuations of melatonin throughout the day is one of the most useful ways to have a positive impact on quality and quantity of sleep. 


Other factors to consider when aiming for the highest quality of sleep include sleep routine, sleep environment and what you eat and drink throughout the day. Routine is very important to sleep, as it gives your body mental cues to start shutting down and getting ready to turn off. Going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time in the morning can be a powerful approach to improving your sleep quality. Also, practicing a method to unwind and relax before bed will be beneficial. This can include, but not be limited to, mediation, deep breathing, stretching, yoga, or simply reading a book. Setting up sleep environment can make a break a healthy night of sleep. Aim for a bedroom that is as dark as possibe, very quite, albeit for some white noise, and a bit on the cool side (somewhere between 60-70 degrees). What you consume, or don’t consume can have an impact on your sleep too. Avoid caffeine late in the day, preferably before noon because the half life of caffeine is about 5 hours meaning if you consume 200 mg of caffeine at 2pm, there is still going to be about 100mg in circulation still at 7pm, which can cause delay to melatonin production and other natural sleep responses. Try to limit alcohol consumption as well, as alcohol has been shown to delay sleep onset as well as REM sleep. Before bed, consider consuming a small meal higher on the glycemic index as well as with high protein foods containing tryptophan. Melatonin can naturally occur in foods as well, such as tart cherry juice, raspberries, walnuts and tomatoes, so consider some of these foods to increase melatonin production. Magnesium supplementation is also shown to have promise, as this can promote muscle relaxation and improve sleep onset. Being aware of the effects the your nutrition has on your sleep is a great step towards improving your sleep quality and getting the most out of your recovery. 

Sleep is an absolute vital physiological function and it is arguably the single most important factor in exercise recovery. Many athletes and coaches prioritize exercise and seek to obtain the highest quality fitness. However, quality sleep should be part of the foundation of an elite athlete’s routine. Incorporating the highest quality sleep into an athlete’s training program must be emphasized. Athletes can train themselves to improve their sleep if they have deficits, which by all measures should translate into improved performance. Therefore, the old saying “you snooze, you lose” should actually read to athletes, “you snooze (more), you win” (Vitale et al., 2019).


Taylor Warren Source Endurance CoachAbout the Author: Taylor Warren’s journey into the world of bikes started back in 2009 when he would join his dad once a week to cross train on the West Orange bike path in Orlando, Florida. In 2015, Taylor earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science with a focus in Sports Medicine at Colorado State University while competing in collegiate racing on the road and track, rising to the rank as Category-1 racer in both disciplines. After graduating school, Taylor raced professionally on the road with the Colorado-based team, the 303 Project. Today, Taylor calls San Diego home where he works in a bike shop performing bike fits, trains to meet the demands of the US Pro Road Tour calendar, and applies the latest sports science to the athletes he coaches including himself. At the core of his coaching, Taylor believes balancing life demands with the eustress of training, while keeping the process fun, is the key to progression and a lifelong passion for health and fitness.  Learn more about Taylor Warren.