When it comes to endurance training, your sleep is just as vital as your workouts. In the age of marginal gains, improving your sleep is the most significant change you can make to improve your performance. This article will cover how you can increase your sleep quality and quantity. 

Key Takeaways

  • Sleep is vital for peak performance.
  • Try to get at least eight hours of quality sleep per night.
  • Setting a regular sleep schedule is important.
  • Good sleep hygiene will improve the sleep you do get.

What is Sleep?

Perhaps the most cited piece of advice we give to athletes is about sleep. Do you have extra time to train? Sleep more. Are you struggling with recovery and consistency? Sleep better. Of all the low hanging fruit that you can get to improve your training, getting at least eight hours of quality sleep is by far the most impactful.

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Sleep is an integral part of our lives. On average, we spend about one-third of our life sleeping. Yet, sleep is an odd thing to define because we are not aware of it when we are doing it. In essence, sleep is a period of rest and restoration for the body when we experience a reduced response to external stimuli. 

What makes you sleepy?

Fundamentally, two factors work to get you to sleep. The first is your homeostatic sleep drive. The longer you’re awake, the stronger your sleep drive becomes, and it’s not satiated until you get enough sleep. The exact mechanisms are not fully understood, but we know that napping too late or too long in the day can reduce sleep drive enough to cause nighttime sleep issues.

The other factor is your circadian rhythm. This is your deeply ingrained internal clock and is controlled by the hypothalamus. As your brain reacts to light and dark, it signals the rest of the body to prepare for wakefulness or sleep. Genetics and environment influence circadian rhythms and therefore vary from person to person. Shift-work and travel to another time zone misalign circadian rhythms and leads to sleep disruptions.

What Happens When You Sleep?

Sleep is hardly passive. Your body is incredibly active with biological processes that affect your emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. Throughout a night of sleeping, you’ll cycle through different stages of sleep characterized by the brain’s electrical activity.  

NREM Sleep

Non-REM (NREM) sleep is divided into three stages, from falling asleep to deep sleep. It’s during this time that your brain waves begin to change from daytime alertness levels while heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing slow down. The third stage of NREM sleep is deep sleep. This is the time when your body releases a cascade of hormones to promote the immune system, cellular regeneration, and tissue repair.

REM Sleep

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep begins about ninety minutes after you fall asleep. Brain activity increases as well as breathing and heart rate. During REM sleep, we dream while the brain temporarily paralyzes the body. REM sleep stimulates brain regions used for learning and is essential for cognitive function.

Why is Sleep Important for Performance?

Sleep plays such a vital role in performance both mentally and physically that it’s virtually impossible to overstate its importance. Whether it’s a workout or race, performance is the combination of your physical, cognitive, and emotional abilities. Sleep rests at the convergence of all three of those things. 

During sleep, your body repairs the damage and reduces inflammation incurred through tough workouts. Much of the muscular adaptation takes place as you sleep. Around two hours into sleeping, your body releases human growth hormone, which is critical for increasing and preserving lean muscle mass. 

Almost everyone has experienced a poor night of sleep and the effects that carry into the day. Reduced sleep affects not only energy levels and mental clarity but also your emotional state. A reduction in any of those three things can create an obstacle in the consistency of your training. 

Tips to Improve Your Sleep

Because sleep is vital for performance and recovery, you’ll want to prioritize it. Here are some tips to help you increase the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Sleep Routine

A clear and consistent routine is the best way to set yourself up for great sleep. That means keeping a regular bedtime and wakeup time. Sleep schedules are highly individual, but try your best to schedule an eight-hour window that matches your body’s natural sleep rhythms. To create a sleep schedule, decide when you need to wake up and then count backward eight hours, and adjust from there.  

Once you have a schedule that works for you, keep it consistent—even on the weekends. If you have to change your routine because of travel or work, try shifting your sleep schedule by twenty minutes a night over a few days. Another helpful tip is to track your sleep with your phone or a journal to examine your consistency. 

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is used to describe your sleep habits. Each of these tips for good sleep hygiene is simple, but when combined, can effectively enhance your sleep quality. 

This is so important that we’re mentioning it twice. Going to bed and getting up about the same time every day helps ensure that you are getting enough sleep. A set schedule is the bedrock of proper sleep cycling. 

Sleep onset can be difficult with an elevated core temperature. A drop of 2-3 degrees of body temperature can help you fall asleep. Try sleeping in a cooler room—about 65°F. Additionally, cooling the skin with a shower or some splashing water on the face, head, hands, and feet can lower your temperature. On the flip side, intense training elevates your core temperature, so try to avoid a workout late at night. 

Light plays a critical role in your natural sleep patterns. The presence of light signals to your body that it’s time to be awake, and it’s absence signals it’s time for sleep. For quality sleep, you’ll want to eliminate as much light as possible from your sleeping environment. Also, reduce exposure to the blue light emitted from led screens and lights about 90 minutes before bed. 

A good standard rule is to go to bed neither too full nor too hungry. Going too far in either direction can hamper sleep quality. It’s a good practice to avoid sugary or excessively carbohydrate focused foods near bedtime. Both caffeine and alcohol can wreak havoc on your sleep, so it’s best to avoid it before bed. While alcohol can help you fall asleep, it reduces your NREM sleep.

Try to keep your bed for sleeping. If you are struggling with falling asleep, give it twenty minutes, and get out of bed. Spend some time doing something calming until you feel sleepy again. 

Sleep Hygiene Tips

  • Use an eye mask and earplugs if you can’t eliminate light and noise.
  • Don’t drink too much water before bedtime.
  • Put your phone on do not disturb.
  • Avoid long naps late in the day.
  • Use a great pillow.

Improving your sleep is the best performance enhancer for cycling. It’s always a good idea to seek professional medical help if you continually struggle with sleep quality. All of these sleep tips can seem a bit overwhelming, but don’t worry! Start with small changes, and over time you’ll be on your way to better sleep and increased performance.

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References and Further Reading

  • Bolin DJ. Sleep Deprivation and Its Contribution to Mood and Performance Deterioration in College Athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2019 Aug;18(8):305-310. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000621. PMID: 31389873.
  • Davidson JR, Moldofsky H, Lue FA. Growth hormone and cortisol secretion in relation to sleep and wakefulness. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 1991;16(2):96-102.
  • Driver HS, Taylor SR. Exercise and sleep. Sleep Med Rev. 2000 Aug;4(4):387-402. doi: 10.1053/smrv.2000.0110. PMID: 12531177.
  • Lane SC, Camera DM, Lassiter DG, Areta JL, Bird SR, Yeo WK, Jeacocke NA, Krook A, Zierath JR, Burke LM, Hawley JA. Effects of sleeping with reduced carbohydrate availability on acute training responses. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2015 Sep 15;119(6):643-55. doi:
  • Leproult, Rachel, and Eve Van Cauter. “Role of sleep and sleep loss in hormonal release and metabolism.” Endocrine development vol. 17 (2010): 11-21. doi:10.1159/000262524
  • Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep. 2011;34(7):943-950. Published 2011 Jul 1. doi:10.5665/SLEEP.1132
  • Okamoto-Mizuno, Kazue, and Koh Mizuno. “Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm.” Journal of physiological anthropology vol. 31,1 14. 31 May. 2012, doi:10.1186/1880-6805-31-14
  • Roberts SSH, Teo WP, Aisbett B, Warmington SA. Effects of total sleep deprivation on endurance cycling performance and heart rate indices used for monitoring athlete readiness. J Sports Sci. 2019 Dec;37(23):2691-2701. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2019.1661561. Epub 2019 Sep 16. PMID: 31526108.
  • Simpson NS, Gibbs EL, Matheson GO. Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: implications and recommendations for elite athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2017 Mar;27(3):266-274. doi: 10.1111/sms.12703. Epub 2016 Jul 1. PMID: 27367265.
  • Tae Won Kim, Jong-Hyun Jeong, Seung-Chul Hong, “The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism”, International Journal of Endocrinology, vol. 2015, Article ID 591729, 9 pages, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/591729
  • Thun E, Bjorvatn B, Flo E, Harris A, Pallesen S. Sleep, circadian rhythms, and athletic performance. Sleep Med Rev. 2015 Oct;23:1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2014.11.003. Epub 2014 Nov 20. PMID: 25645125.
  • Vitale KC, Owens R, Hopkins SR, Malhotra A. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int J Sports Med. 2019 Aug;40(8):535-543. doi: 10.1055/a-0905-3103. Epub 2019 Jul 9. PMID: 31288293; PMCID: PMC6988893. 10.1152/japplphysiol.00857.2014. Epub 2015 Jun 25. PMID: 26112242.