Training and nutrition tend to be considered the foundations of an athletic lifestyle, but a third component is often forgotten: adequate and good sleep. It plays a particularly important role for athletes, because much of the growth and regeneration processes as well as the processing of training stimuli occur during sleep. We may not notice it at all, but during sleep, many of the systems in our body run on full speed.
Sleep is also of utmost importance for mental recovery. What we have learned and experienced during the day is selected, deleted, or stored; conflicts and nagging questions are processed. For physical relaxation and mental hygiene to occur really efficiently, three sleep factors play a major role: regularity, duration, and quality of sleep. The closer they come to optimal performance, the better – not to say more effective – our sleep is.
In this series we want to review a few basic facts about sleep, how it may affect your performance, and how you can change these factors to achieve optimal sleep. Regularity is the first factor.
What the "internal clock" is really all about
We receive the signal to fall asleep or of being tired through a change in hormone levels and falling body temperature. These in turn depend on fine oscillations of our cells, colloquially called the “internal clock”. This clock determines many cycles and processes in the course of our lives and is not only genetically programmed, but also in many areas synchronized with so-called “zeitgebers” from our environment. The term “Zeitgeber” is german and means “time giver” or “timer” Our sleep/wake rhythm is one of the most famous examples of such synchronization: To a certain extent, the oscillations determining the sleep/wake cycle take their cues from the changes in darkness and daylight.
In turn, this so-called circadian rhythm determines – among other things – when certain hormones are secreted, including those that at first sight are not directly related to our sleep rhythm, such as sexual and metabolic hormones. The more closely we follow our circadian rhythm, the better we are able to maintain our hormonal balance and our well-being.
What happens when the internal clock loses its balance?
A disturbance of our sleep rhythm – for example due to extreme artificial shifts – has a serious impact on other systems and can manifest itself in difficulties concentrating, increased fatigue, and decreased performance, as well as in many other symptoms. In addition, training stimuli and nutrients are processed less efficiently. If despite optimal nutrition and sophisticated training, progress stagnates or is not apparent, the reason may be found in poor sleep patterns.
Few people can go to bed and rise exactly at the same time (to the minute) on a daily basis. This is not strictly necessary. Doing so would affect other areas of life, such as our professional or social activities. The objective should be to try to keep sleeping hours within a certain time frame for the most part and avoiding larger or persistent swings over a longer period. A more regular bedtime and rising time promotes harmony in body functions. The body already knows which systems at what time and in which direction must be activated – also during the day.