This post comes in response to a question we received from a reader. “Why is getting a good night sleep important before competition?”
Sleep is restorative and not preparatory in terms of physiological function. When we sleep there is a down regulation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This is our “Fight mode” which reacts to stress and allows us to “Perform”. The opposite is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This is our “Rest Mode”. It allows the organs to dial back on activity and gives them a chance to recover fully. When in rest mode the immune system is highly active. Time and energy goes into repairing damaged tissues and resupplying fuel stores. If we were constantly in fight mode the body would eventually break down and the safety stops would be activated. Our immune system would also become depressed and we would become more susceptible to infections and illness.
Studies examining the physiological response to impaired or reduced sleep prior to competition have shown no significant negative impact. It does not have a direct impact on physiological capacity or function. However, mental and cognitive function are significantly reduced. This on its own will cause noticeable decrements in performance. In terms of an athletes mood state there will be a drastic decline in motivation depending on the individual. Their ability to push themselves mentally and stay alert will be reduced.It is also important to note that we are discussing lack of sleep rather than a night on the town. The later has many other factors added to the mix which can cause issues.
When an an athlete may be competing or training for multiple consecutive days, sleep plays a restorative role. It becomes a major part of the bodies natural recovery system. Disturbed or impaired sleep my hinder the restorative processes that have been mentioned from taking place. The ability of an athlete to recover is vital in maintaining performance when there are multiple days of activity.
From a practical perspective, an athlete should always try to get adequate sleep. The optimal amount will vary from one individual to another. If an athlete misses sleep before the competition has started they should place their focus on mental preparation and motivation as this will be the site for concern. After the race they should look to get sleep for both mental and physiological benefits. Inadequate sleep will result in poor recovery which will likely result in a drop in performance on consecutive competition days.
Athletes should make note of what is normal for them and what lets them perform at their best. Having a record of sleep is a good tool to allow an athlete identify when there might be an issue. This can be useful in the grand scheme as certain trends in sleep patterns can be identified and managed. Many athletes suffer from sleep disturbances as a result of nutrition, travel, stress and a wide range of factors which can be managed.
In conclusion, a lack of sleep before a big competition is not ideal preparation for an athlete. It is not always avoidable and so it is important for them to understand how it might effect them. It is a factor which should be monitored and managed as part of an athletes routine.
This post comes in response to a question we had from one of our readers. He asked “Why can I lift more when I train in the evening, as opposed to early morning training?” First of all, everyone is a little different in terms of what works for them and what they prefer. There is not always a wrong or right when it comes to training. Often the answer lies between what works and what allows you to be consistent. However, there may be some physiological reasons which could answer why someone may perform better later in the day than in the morning. Circadian rhythms which are often overlooked when it comes to health and performance science but they are very real. These are natural rhythms of life which we constantly are subject to. The seasons and solar cycle are two such examples which have a direct impact on our lifestyle and health. Our body has a natural flow of hormones and neurotransmitters which are directly influenced by our environment. When we sleep our body goes into standby mode allowing us to rest and recover. When we awake there is a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that prepare us to go about our daily business.
This all starts with the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) located within the hypothalmus a very active part of the brain, which is essentially the control centre for our endocrine system. The SCN is stimulated by sunlight through our eyes and triggers our start up switch on a daily basis. Other hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormone follow similar patterns stimulated and regulated by a number of other factors. The timing and magnitude of these chemical patterns will vary slightly from one individual to another. These rhythms can therefore dictate when we are primed for certain actions. One of these rhythms is our body temperature. We tend on a consistent basis to have a daily peak in the afternoon. This is provided we do not influence it through exercise etc. Increased body temperature optimises muscle contractile function and a range of other things that can improve our strength performance.
In addition to these natural rhythms we have lifestyle influences. We know that there are nutritional differences from morning to evening. When we wake, we are in a fasted state and usually the complete opposite in the evening. The ingestion of certain food types can dramatically alter mood state and energy levels. We also have decreased flexibility as a result of lying relatively stationary for a long period. Sleep inertia is also an influence. This is that sleepy, clumsy mood you feel when you awake in the morning and it takes time to recover from. These are all factors which not only impact performance but also mood and motivational state. These exclusive of other factors, can be significant.
Some people are relatively unaffected by these things, while others may feel them dramatically. We are creatures of habit and sometimes we simply become used to doing things in a certain way. When we break routine our mood can reflect it. Regardless of these factors an individual may feel more prepared to train in the morning and see no real difference to training in the evening. It all comes down to the individual. In terms of management of an athletes performance we should consider this issue and take it into consideration for planning. Training should ideally be scheduled at approximately the same time of day as competition. Over time the athlete will learn to manage themselves in such a way that they can perform optimally come competition time.
I hope I managed to answer the question sufficiently!
This post may be a little controversial amongst endurance athletes but it is an important topic. Any serious endurance athlete will have a training plan. This plan will generally use heart rate or wattage as the variable around which they structure their training sessions. In recent years wattage has become a very popular training variable. It relates more directly to actual speed and performance than heart rate. Team Sky Cycling highlighted the importance of accurate data in their training program and heavily relied on wattage during their Tour De France preparation. It can be very successfully used to build an effective endurance training program. For this reason there has been a big shift towards Watt training and away form the traditional heart rate zone style training. Heart rate data has now become a bit of an optional add on for analysis rather than a training variable, especially with more tech orientated athletes.
While watt training for sure has its merits it also comes with an often overlooked disadvantage. The sessions’ power output targets are pre determined post fitness testing. The athlete knows exactly what wattage needs to be achieved and maintained per session in their plan. The sole focus is to stick strictly to these wattage prescriptions. The issue is that watt training does not factor in readiness to train or physical state. For example an athlete may have a poor nights sleep or be particularly stressed due to some lifestyle factor like work etc. he may even be fatigued from a previous training session. When this athlete comes to their training they might struggle to maintain the prescribed wattage but force themselves to be strict. This can result in a much higher level of stress or intensity than intended when their program was designed. Too many forced sessions can result in overreaching and eventually overtraining. It can also be mentality hard on an athlete to realise they cannot keep up with their training. Things can quickly become counterproductive.
While heart rate does not translate as well into speed or power outputs it is auto-regulatory. This means if you are fatigued, stressed or sick heart rate will reflect this. Heart rate will be generally higher and so you will reach the desired zone with less work. If you use heart rate zones as your training variable things are automatically factored in. In a fatigued state you may achieve the desired HR and duration prescribed but the performance might appear to be poor. In the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal. You are still getting time at the intended intensity and your recovery can cope, avoiding any overtraining type scenario. Over the long term this is actually more productive in terms of physiological improvement and mental state.
While I’m not trying to put people off using wattage for training I think it is important to highlight the issue. If you choose to use watts over heart rate you must be diligent in assessing your training state. You must accept that sessions need to be flexible to account for external factors that wattage on its own will ignore. As with any program following blindly is never a smart approach. There are many factors which can influence performance and success will always be a balancing act.