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Can you sleep your way to the top?

James Spender
5 Jul 2016

We all know the importance of sleep, but are we really getting enough and of the right quality? Cyclist finds out.

According to a 2016 study by the Royal Society for Public Health, the average British adult sleeps for six hours 48 minutes a night, which, given the average life expectancy in the UK is 81.5 years (2012-2014 Office for National Statistics study), means we’re likely to spend 157,607 hours in bed over our adult lives. Or around 18 solid years.

That might sound like rather a lot – after all, that only leaves 45.5 years of adulthood for cycling – but the same RSPH study asserts that we are falling short of our preferred sleep quota (a figure based on how long participants in the study felt they needed) by 54 minutes a night. In other words, most of us are losing nearly a whole night’s sleep per week, or approximately 20,803 hours or 2.37 years over a lifetime. 

Perhaps that sounds like a justifiable concession, as it would mean you have 2.37 years to do more stuff, but for Dr James Maas, a social psychologist who coined the term ‘power nap’ and who counsels leading American sports teams on sleeping well, the importance of sleep should not be underestimated.

‘Our culture just doesn’t value sleep,’ says Dr Maas. ‘There’s a mistaken belief that we can accomplish more if we sleep less, but nothing could be further from the truth. A lack of sleep for one night can leave you irritable and tired, but over a lifetime it has been linked to cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, early onset Alzheimer’s… the list goes on. Beyond that, sleep deprivation means a loss of socialisation skills so you don’t feel like being a team player, as well as an increased perception of effort and lower motivation, a definite drop in motor skills, significantly impaired decision-making and poor situational awareness.

‘Such things are critical for any athlete, especially a cyclist. In fact, if you look at outstanding ultra-athletes, with little room to improve, that magic silver bullet to make them even better is to add to their sleep. For most “normal” people, between seven and a half and nine hours is good, and in my experience working with athletes, I’d say as close to nine and a quarter hours as possible is ideal.’

Heavy-hitting stuff, and while I wouldn’t describe myself as an ‘outstanding ultra-athlete’, it did get me thinking. Am I sleeping enough as a person and, if I slept more, would it make me better as a cyclist?

I’m only sleeping

Like all modern voyages of discovery, my journey starts with a Google search: ‘What are the effects of sleep on sports performance?’ This elicits a research paper from Stanford University entitled The Effects Of Sleep Extension On The Athletic Performance Of Collegiate Basketball Players. The paper’s findings are as prosaic as its title: ‘Optimal sleep is likely beneficial in reaching peak athletic performance.’ 

During the six-week study, a group of basketball players who normally slept between six and nine hours a night were asked to sleep for a minimum of 10 hours. The result was an improvement in sprint time over 282 feet (‘baseline to half-court and back to baseline, then to full-court and back to baseline’) from 16.2 to 15.5 seconds on average, together with a free-throw and three-point throw accuracy increase of 9% and 9.2% respectively and a decrease in reaction time.

The message would seem to be clear: get 10 hours a night and you’ll perform better. But as the study concerned basketball players, not cyclists, I need to determine an applicable set of tests to measure sleep and bike performance. For that I turn to Joe Wainwright, lab manager at the Surrey Human Performance Institute, who has worked extensively on sleep’s relationship to sport.

‘You could do a 20-minute FTP test or similar,’ he says. ‘The key thing is not to do this too frequently, or up your exercise in general, as those things would probably lead to improvements on their own.’

Wainwright also suggests an online Psychomotor Vigilance Test (PVT), which measures reaction times over two minutes using a ‘click when you see it’ program. I decide to follow the Stanford model of a six-week trial, resolving to measure my 20-minute average power and maximum minute power outputs on a Wattbike at the first, third and sixth weeks, and to take a PVT at the same time every day.

Documenting my sleep times will be crucial. Over the last month I’ve been trialling a Fitbit Blaze activity tracker, a device that records and logs sleep and restlessness via a combination of heart rate monitor and accelerometer (when heart rate and movement drop off, you’re asleep). It should be noted that it’s not a medically approved device, however I decide its ready availability to the consumer and congruence with my own anecdotal evidence makes it a useful tool. 

Except for the threshold tests, I’m looking forward to this. Sleeping for 10 hours a night? What’s not to like?

Perchance to dream

Within two weeks I realise my 10-hour goal isn’t going to work. Besides life going on around me in all its work and socialising glory, Cyclist packs me off to ride a sportive in Morocco, and over the four-day trip I average six hours 40 minutes sleep per night, 31 minutes less than before I’d undertaken this trial. Both my PVT and wattage scores are worse too, and my Fitbit is telling me I’m more restless at night. 

Conscious of my six-week timeframe I decide I need some help, so arrange an appointment with Professor Adrian Williams at the London Sleep Centre, a veteran of the cause who counts the Welsh rugby team among his clients. 

‘We are bound to lead our lives,’ he tells me commiseratively. ‘Less than 20% of people can get by on less than six hours of sleep, and evidently you’re not one. You can’t “bank” sleep by sleeping in anticipation, but you can run up a sleep debt, which is why statistically people sleep an extra two hours at the weekend. The quality of your sleep is another consideration. Going to bed at 10pm and waking at 8am doesn’t guarantee 10 hours of good sleep.’

Williams points out that I have an ‘anatomy that lends itself to snoring in that you have an overbite’, something that can precipitate waking oneself up, as well as the ‘wrong kind of nocturnal spousal arousal’, and we spend some time discussing how often I wake in the night (answer: quite a lot but for short periods), and what I do in the hours leading up to sleep, that is, my ‘sleep hygiene’.

‘As a cyclist I imagine you drink a lot of coffee. The problem is caffeine inhibits sleep, but has a half-life of around five hours,’ he says. ‘So a 100mg caffeine-coffee at 2pm will mean 25mg in your system at midnight. Exercise is another factor. We sleep better if we’ve raised our core temperature as we lose around 1°C at night, and 30 minutes of vigorous exercise will do this, but timing is crucial. Too early and by the evening you’ve lost that extra temperature; too late and you’ve raised your adrenaline level at the worst time. Exercising five to eight hours before bedtime is ideal. 

‘Avoid screens, too. They emit blue light, and your body clock is set by blue light, so a phone or television before bed can delay sleep. Interestingly, light from books is on the green side, which is far less detrimental.’

Having surmised that I could improve the quality and quantity of my sleep, I’m referred to the London Sleep Centre’s psychotherapist, Penny Smyly, to help me establish a more regimented pattern of deeper sleep.

Off to the Land of Nod

‘Beds are for sleeping and love-making,’ says Smyly. ‘I want to make sure that if you’re in bed, you’re sleeping, so we’re going to re-train your body clock. You have one body clock, which runs from Monday to Monday, so it’s essential to be consistent. Lying in at the weekend to catch up on sleep confuses it.’ We discuss my current habits and decide that the best time for me to wake each day is 8am. Surprisingly, though, Smyly tells me
I should be going to bed at 1am, for now. 

‘If you want to go to bed earlier, that’s up to you, but don’t wake later than 8am, and get straight out of bed. Hitting snooze on the alarm clock just lets your body start the next sleep cycle, which leaves you feeling groggy when you eventually do rise,’ she adds.

Apparently seven hours is generally applicable for re-training an adult’s body clock as it ‘makes you tired enough to force the body into deeper sleep’. The caveat here is that Smyly would normally recommend this for three months (before patients adjust the length of time spent sleeping to their liking, retaining the consistent wake-up time), but my crash course will only let me do this for another four weeks. Next, sleep hygiene. Consumption of caffeine after 2pm is out, as too any alcohol in the three hours leading up to bed.

‘I also want you to avoid big conversations with your partner before bed, and likewise, watching or reading the news, all of which can create anxiety,’ says Smyly. ‘No screens in the hour before bed, and try to do at least two 20-minute sessions of cardio each week too, during the day. Try not to go to bed hungry, but avoid sugary food in the evening. Also, for the first week, no reading in bed. Beds are for sleeping in, remember.’

The cardio I can manage, but the rest proves difficult. Gone are the pick-me-up espressos, late-night episodes of Game Of Thrones and bed-read novels. In fact, over the next week I find myself so bereft of pre-bed stimulus that on several occasions I go to bed far earlier than 1am out of a mixture of tiredness and boredom. I’m resolute with my 8am rising, however.

A week later I’m back to see Smyly and she seems pleased at my progress. ‘From your sleep diary it seems you’re sleeping more deeply and with a more consistent pattern. That’s good, and now we can add in a wind-down phase. This should take around 45 minutes to an hour before bed. 

‘First, get a hardback journal. It has to be hardback. On the left side of the page write a few things down that are going to happen tomorrow, for example a business meeting. To the right, note the very first thing you need to do to make that happen, for example “book a meeting room”. Don’t write more than five things. When you’re done, slam the book shut with a slap. That’s very important.

‘Next, breathing. Sit upright and imagine a triangle between your solar plexus and hip joints. Inside that triangle, imagine there’s a balloon you are filling by breathing in. Breathe in and out, four seconds in, five out, focusing on pushing out your stomach. Do this until you feel relaxed, and then the rest of the time spend reading. Find a book that takes you outside of your life, like a novel – one that’s engaging but not too stimulating.

‘Last, choose three things to do before turning out the light and stick to them, in order. Maybe it’s brushing your teeth, setting an alarm then moisturising. It’s a kind of Pavlov’s Dog approach – those things will start to signal sleep. Finally, turn the light off and go to sleep. If you wake up in the night and your mind starts wandering, just remember the noise of the slamming book.’

Larks and owls

For the first time in the process I start to wake before my 8am alarm. Not every day, but on a notable number of occasions. I find Smyly’s wind-down procedure helpful but desperately hard to stick to, the pull of bed far greater than my desire to sit and write down what steps I’m going to take tomorrow to try to finish an article I’m writing about sleep.

That said, I’m waking less at night, but according to Fitbit data I’m still somewhat restless, so while I would hazard to say I’m more alert, I’m not entirely sure I feel more energised physically. So with my final threshold test looming, I consult with Wainwright. 

‘Recent research suggests people have a chronotype – that is, a predisposition to functioning better in the morning or evening,’ he says. ‘By determining your chronotype we can find your peak performance time during the day, such that your motivation is higher and your physical adaptation is better.’

To do this, I complete a Horne-Ostberg Morningness Eveningness questionnaire, which includes questions such as, ‘What time would you get up if you were entirely free to plan your day?’ Wainwright analyses the results and tells me I’m in the intermediate category, ‘like the majority of people’, and my peak physical time is around 6.5 hours after waking, or about 2.30pm given my 8am rise. 

In some respects this is disappointing to hear. Like many people I try to exercise at lunchtime, which for me falls between 1 and 2pm. Thus, unwittingly, I am already hitting peak performance time routinely, and as such I can’t hope for some magical overnight gains just by shifting my training schedule. Yet, in another way, it’s good to know that my training time has been as efficient as it can be. However, before I can pat myself on the back, Wainwright has some bad news based on his analysis of my sleep diaries and data: ‘The majority of the time you’re not sleeping enough for someone of your age [31], so from here on I’d suggest sticking pretty rigidly to an 11.30pm to 8am pattern.’

It’s goodnight from me

The next three weeks are a constant battle with bedtime. Keeping to even an approximate 11.30pm curfew, a shift by about an hour from a habit I’ve been cultivating for a decade, is an exercise in extreme mental discipline, phone reminders and curbing social engagements. But come the final week, it seems it might just have been worth it.

At 2.30pm I take my final Wattbike test, and the figures are encouraging, if not mind-blowing. My 20-minute average is now 302W and my maximum minute power is 402W, an increase of 4.5% and 2% respectively. 

As Wainwright pointed out initially, my power numbers may well have increased by dint of taking the test more regularly, and he may be right. But elsewhere what is objectively the case is my waking and restlessness occasions have significantly decreased, and I’m often sleeping the whole night through. My bedtimes have become more consistent, and I’m sleeping at Wainwright’s marker of 8.5 hours. My PVT (reaction time) scores are at an all-time low too, down from a 324ms weekly average to 276ms. 

All in all I’m in no doubt that sleeping even more would be beneficial, and if the day was longer I might well be hitting Dr Maas’s 9.25-hour target or the Stanford basketball players’ 10 hours of kip. But, to paraphrase Professor Williams, ‘I am bound to lead my life’, and I’m not a professional sportsperson whose existence both decrees and permits maximum rest. Perhaps if I slept more I could be, but given the cyclic nature of life impacting sleep and sleep impacting life, I’m really not sure I’ll be able to deviate too much from my current situation – or if I can, it will take far longer than six weeks. Still, at least I now have something to aim for, and am better equipped to keep a slightly more alert eye on the situation. 

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