Can You Sleep Your Way To Fitness?

Can You Sleep Your Way To Fitness?

Think spending more time in the gym will help you achieve peak fitness? Think again. A growing body of research suggests getting an early night is the real secret to improved strength and more efficient recovery. We caught up with the experts to discover why sleep may well be the most important element of your training…

How much sleep do you really need? 

The NHS says most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep every night, but if you’re a gym junkie, the pros say you could benefit from even more. Jason Reynolds, head of fitness at Lanserhof at The Arts Club, says athletes (including those training hard, which equates to around four intense sessions per week) require between eight to ten hours’ sleep every night to maximise performance. “The key is to listen to your body – if your alarm goes off at the crack of dawn and your body feels weak with a notable lack of energy, strength or flexibility once you’re at the gym, this is a sure sign you need more sleep,” he says.

Why does a lack of sleep affect performance? 

Reynolds explains that getting less than six hours of sleep for just two days can hinder your motor skills (i.e. your hand to eye co-ordination) and reaction times, reducing performance by 4%. One study found that when tennis players upped their shuteye to ten hours a night, they sprinted faster and improved the accuracy of their hits. Reynolds adds that sleep deprivation can prohibit glycogen production, which will lead to a lack of energy during your workout. Moreover, a chronic lack of sleep alongside an intense training plan can lead to increased cortisol levels, which can result in mental and physical fatigue as well as a stubborn tendency by the body to hang onto fat. 

How does the body repair as you sleep?  

It all comes down to your hormones, explains Bodyism club manager Deanna Brash. “Sleep plays a vital role in balancing hormones and restoring the immune system. When you sleep, you produce growth hormones that help to repair and build new muscle tissue after an intense workout,” she explains. There are various stages to our sleep, all of which play a role in recovery. Stages three and four of non-REM sleep, down as ‘deep sleep’, are the most important for muscle recovery. 

What’s more important when it comes to sleep – quantity or quality? 

Brash believes both play an equal role. “Quality and quantity of sleep are both vital. In order to feel most rested, try to sleep in complete 90-minute cycles; aiming for five cycles (7.5 hours) in total, rather than forcing yourself to wake up in a ‘deep sleep’ phase. Not only will this prevent you from snoozing your alarm multiple times, but by reducing the amount of broken sleep you have, it will improve your daytime attention span, productivity and general brain function,” she says.

Any advice for boosting sleep quality? 

Reynolds’ top tips include setting your bedroom thermostat to 15-19 degrees, avoiding sleeping in close proximity to mobile devices, and steering clear of very rich, fatty or fried foods prior to hitting the pillow. Remember consistency is key – the benefits of a good night’s sleep are instantaneous, but for a better training performance, stick to a consistent sleep routine.

What should we prioritise – a lie in or an early morning gym session? 

Ideally, Brash says, sleep for seven to nine hours per night and schedule exercise at a time that won’t be taken over by work or social obligations. That way you don’t have to decide between exercise and sleep. However, working out early comes with a host of benefits that are hard to ignore – from increased alertness and endorphins to improved sleep come bedtime. Not a morning person? Hitting the gym in the later afternoon has its benefits too, as this is when our body temperature and energy levels are naturally at their highest, with studies suggesting this is when we perform our best both physically and mentally.

What’s the bottom line? 

Building in extra time in bed may well be the secret to increased fitness levels and a stronger body. And the benefits go both ways: deeper sleep ensures your energy stores and muscle function are replenished, while a regular gym routine will help you nod off quicker. Forget sleeping like a baby – it’s time to start sleeping like an athlete.

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