Is Your Sleep Schedule Preventing You From Getting Stronger? 8 Questions to Ask Yourself

Most people don’t realize it, but getting stronger and sleeping go hand in hand. In fact, sleep is one of THE  most important components of the recovery cycle. “With each workout, you are essentially causing trauma to your body,” explains Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach Dr. Grayson Wickham PT, DTD, CSCS. That means that every time you exercise you are creating microscopic tears in your muscles, which grow back stronger when they repair. These tears must repair in order to strengthen and grow the muscle tissue back bigger.

However, without proper rest, there is not enough time for the muscles to grow back stronger.  In simple terms, when you sleep, you recover, and when you recover you replace, repair, and rebuild- all of which are needed for optimal #gains.

When you sleep, you go through different sleep states, which make up the sleep cycle. One full cycle typically lasts about 90 minutes and repeats over the course of the night. The stages include non–rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep (stages 1–4) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (stage 5). The number one reason sleep is an important part of recovery is because Growth Hormone (HGH) levels begin to rise 30-45 minutes after falling asleep, in stages 3 and 4.

HGH is an amino acid produced in the pituitary gland of the brain, and is vital for regulating the body’s metabolism. HGH begins to get released in stage 3 and continues to get released in stage 4, which is the deepest sleep that helps replenish energy levels. During these two stages, the body does most of its repair due, which is why stages 3 and 4 are most vital for athletic performance.

[Read here for tips on getting better rest after nighttime workouts!]

Can you make strength and size gains while also neglecting to sleep eight hours a night? Yes. However, you can also drink a gallon of water out of a swirly straw while standing on your head or cook an egg on a sidewalk on a cloudy day, but there are, quite simply, better and more efficient ways to go about it.

Answer these 8 questions to find out if sleeping more could help you reach your fitness goals.

1. Do you turn on the TV if you can’t fall asleep immediately?

If you’re still lying awake after 15 minutes of trying to fall asleep, get out of bed and do something else, suggest Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., certified yoga instructor and owner of Keri Gans Nutrition. For example, go through your bedtime relaxation ritual again. Take a bath, read, listen to soothing music, or have a cup of warm milk or hot tea. Then go back to bed when the anxiety of not being able to fall asleep is gone.

No matter how tempted you are, don’t turn on the television, get on your computer, or check your texts or email. Try not to expose yourself to bright light, extreme temperatures, or loud sounds. These stimulating activities will only make it harder for you to get into sleep mode. According to a paper published in the International Review of Neurobiology, when we’re exposed to light (laptop and phone screens included) after the sun’s gone down, we uproot our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle (described above), which is tied to the light-dark cycle outside. So ignoring heavy eyelids not only sets you up for a rough morning, it also means you’re literally denying our body what it’s craving.

2. Do you sleep less than 7 hours per night?

A lot of things can get in the way of a good night’s sleep, especially for an athlete: travel for away games or competitions, early morning interval training, late afternoon weight room dates, and the stress that comes along with training and wanting to perform. However, getting enough sleep is especially important for athletes; research shows that getting less than seven hours of sleep could result in you shortening your workouts. Lack of sleep can make you feel less motivated during your sweat session and can make you perceive higher levels of exertion and fatigue.

One study tracked the Stanford University basketball team for several months. Players added an average of almost 2 hours of sleep a night. The results? Players increased their speed by 5%, their free throws were 9% more accurate, they had faster reflexes and reported feeling happier in practice.

A second study tracked the Stanford University women’s tennis team. For two to three weeks, the players maintained their regular sleep and workout schedules. During this time the athletes took part in sprinting and hitting drills to measure their performance. Then the players were told to extend their sleep to 10 hours a night for six weeks. After increasing sleep, the athletes performed better on all the drills. Sprinting drill times dropped on average to 17.56 seconds from 19.12 seconds. Hitting accuracy improved from 12.6 serves to 15.61 serves, and a hitting depth drill improved from 10.85 to 15.45 hits. While the study was small, and some of the improvements may be a result of an extra six weeks of practice time, the researchers concluded that the size of the improvement suggests the athletes received a direct benefit from more sleep.

The takeaway is simple: sleep longer to perform better.

3. Is your sleep schedule suddenly “off”?

If pairing the words “sleep” and “schedule” suddenly feels like an oxymoron because of how erratic your waking and sleeping hours have been, it could be a sign of (*gasp*) overtraining. Yep, that means that sleep isn’t just a factor of fitness level; it can also be a symptom of poor recovery.

New onset insomnia or frequent sleep disturbances are signs of overtraining, says Dr.Wickham. Which means, if you’ve recently begun having a hard time falling asleep it could be because your central nervous system is overstimulated from trying to heal your darn muscles! If you don’t sleep well or long enough consistently for a few days, your reaction time, immunity, cognitive functions, and endurance will decrease, with compounds the symptoms of overtraining. Dr. Wickham says that two rest days in a row should be enough to reset the body back into a normal sleep schedule and cycle, if overtraining is the cause of a wacked-out sleep schedule. If you’re still experiencing sleep disturbances during the second or third night, listen to your body and rest until your normal sleep schedule returns.  

4. Do you go to bed a different time every night?

Between weeknight TV binges, late night pump-sessions, weekend bar-hopping, and that late afternoon coffee you just ~had~ to have, going to sleep at the same time every night can feel impossible. But a consistent sleep schedule is a critical part of developing good sleep habits, which improves your body’s ability to recover. According to the Mayo Clinic, frequently changing the times you go to bed and wake up literally confuses your body’s biological clock and can interrupt the body’s production of hormones that help you “fitness”, such as GHG and testosterone. Following a regular schedule, (yes, even on weekends and holidays), can help you get the rest and recovery you need.

If you’re having a hard time sticking a bedtime, Keri Gans recommends preparing your mind and body for sleep by finding a relaxing bedtime routine that begins at around the same time every night. The ritual of doing something calming before bed can definitely help with preparing for an energized morning. Gans suggests, “calming ritual such as drinking a cup of hot tea, making and sipping warm milk, or rubbing lavender on your temples are all good places to start”.  

5. Are you still working out one to two hours before you’re planning to catch some Zzz’s?

That 8 pm weightlifting regime not only helps you pack on muscle but is also a fun way to work off the day’s stress. The problem: It amps your central nervous system for hours. You can’t immediately go from 100 to zero, explains Gans. Recent research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology backs up Gan’s claims. The researchers clocked how long it took people to doze off and then measured their quality of sleep after different activities. For example, after sitting down, after running on a treadmill at moderate intensity (60 percent of their heart-rate max), and after running at high intensity (80 percent of their heart-rate max) from 9:20 p.m. until 10 p.m. The study participants then went to bed at 11 p.m.

The results showed that after moderate-intensity activity, people’s quality of sleep was no different than when they were sedentary. But the athletes did experience some negative effects after engaging in high-intensity exercise right before bed, they took about 14 minutes longer to fall asleep, compared to when they were inactive. Plus, their sleep was less efficient (basically, they spent more time just staring into space, instead of snoozing, while in bed). The athletes reported feeling more fulfilled when they worked out intensely before bed than when they worked out moderately, which researchers concluded proved that it took athletes longer to fall asleep after high intensity exercise because of the effects on the central nervous system and NOT psychological stress.

If late nights are the only time you have to fit in a high intensity workout, Gans recommends incorporating breathing exercises that help lower your heart rate into your late night routine in order to help lower your heart rate, or even meditating.

6. Do you rely on caffeine to get going in the morning?

Stimulants like caffeine aren’t enough to override your body’s profound need for sleep. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the effects of caffeine can take six to eight hours to wear off. So avoid drinking caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or soda, in the late afternoon or evening because that could prevent you from falling asleep at a reasonable hour, and subsequently lead to a reliance on caffeine to kickstart your day. While caffeine itself may not to be to blame for lack of gains, it is a factor in our ability to sleep and sleep deeply, which as we learned, can affect how we feel, our bodies ability to repair, and our motivation.

7. Do you feel guilty when you sleep more than 9 hours a night?

According to the CDC, more than one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep, and it has been officially documented as a public health problem. This is confounded by the fact that those who can and do sleep more than 9 hours of sleep “admit” such in tones of guilt, while those running on little to no sleep brag with a sense of accomplishment over how little sleep they are able function on. Both sides of the coin are representative of a world that glorifies busy while ignoring that sleep should be the number one priority for those trying to get their health in order.

Rest assured (see what I did there?), sleeping is not selfish or indulgent and not sleeping isn’t the badge of honor it once was. If you want to be your best athlete (and self), you need to sleep well. Emerging research continues to support what our bodies tell us, and experts predict that a larger, seismic sleep shift will continue to gain serious momentum as the wellness industry blossoms.

8. Do you feel you need more sleep?

As a general rule, Dr. Wickham suggests athletes get 7-9 hours of sleep a night to recover. But he says there’s no magic formula for sleep per athlete per night. The best way to tell you need to sleep more is to listen to your body. If you find you feel worn down, have an inclination that you might be overdoing it, or have had a few bad training days in a row, give yourself permission to sleep in. Asking yourself these three questions is a good way to tell, too: Did you sleep for 7 hours without waking up in the middle of the night? Are you in a good mood? Do you feel able to train today?

If you answer “Yes” for 2 out of 3 questions, Dr. Wickham says that you’re probably well-rested, recovered and ready to sweat.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @michelegrenierphoto and @reason.thibault_caro on Instagram