How to Sleep Better to Improve Your Cycling Performance
The quality of your sleep has a huge impact on your cycling performance and recovery. For pretty much everyone, getting the recommended eight hours will have a notable impact on mood and energy both on and off the bike.
We all know the feeling of waking up refreshed after a great sleep, feeling like we can take on the world and overcome any challenge. Unfortunately, many of us live busy lives where the demands of the day result in staying up later and getting up earlier just to keep on top of everything we need to do.
The resulting lack of sleep can have a range of knock-on effects like reducing our drive to exercise, making it harder to choose healthy foods, or leaving us feeling distracted and tired.
To help you improve the quality of your sleep so that you can perform at your best, whether it’s for a weekend spin with friends or a local race you’ve been training for, we’ve put together a list of tips and tricks to help you get the sleep you need.
First of all, let’s cover some important concepts relating to sleep, health, and performance.
Table of Contents
1. The Anatomy of Sleep
2. The Impact of Sleep on Health and Performance
3. Recommendations on How to Sleep Better
1. The Anatomy of Sleep
The Different Sleep Stages
There are four distinct stages of sleep as identified by different levels of activity in the body and brain. Even though no one part of sleep is more important than the next, for the sake of this article, we will talk about two stages: deep sleep & REM sleep.
While you sleep, you cycle through these stages several times (roughly five), meaning the length of each stage changes during each cycle.
This stage is often thought of as the key stage for recovery and repair in the body. During this stage, hormones are released to stimulate repair processes in your body’s tissues which help you get stronger and replenish any depleted systems from stressors such as exercise.
Deep sleep stages are longer in the first half of the night and get progressively shorter as the night goes on. This means that any disruption to your normal bedtime has the greatest impact on repair and recovery.
REM sleep is most commonly associated with cognitive recovery, including the formation of memory and assimilation of the previous day’s learning. Dreams are more infrequent and less intense during this stage.
REM gets progressively longer as the night goes on, with the longest periods happening before waking. This means that if you need to wake up earlier for any reason, REM sleep will be negatively affected.
The Body’s Circadian Rhythm
Circadian rhythms are daily cycles in the body that regulate your body’s internal clock, one of which is the sleep-wake cycle.
These rhythms are synchronized by a master clock in your brain which is influenced by environmental elements. One such element is light exposure, which is why the rhythm is usually linked with day and night light cycles. Additionally, food consumption, exercise, temperature, and social activity can also influence these rhythms.
A well-aligned circadian rhythm should result in better sleep quality and consistency. However, when it becomes misaligned, sleep issues can manifest quickly. Jetlag is a key example of this.
2. The Impact of Sleep on Health and Performance
The extent to which sleep can impact our lives both positively and negatively is huge. In relation to cycling, poor sleep can negatively impact cardiovascular performance, reactions and concentration, decision making, our ability to use fuel, and our ability to tolerate hard efforts and pain.
Additionally, sleep deprivation (less than 7 hours per night for most people) is linked with lower immune system function, depression, and higher stress.
Physical & Cognitive Performance
The effect of a poor night’s sleep has been demonstrated time and again in studies on both athletes and non-athletes.
Even casual cycling requires high levels of concentration and quick reactions due to sharing the road with vehicles and other cyclists, so being as sharp as possible in these areas will help keep you safe and performing at your best.
A poor sleep will affect your cycling performance and lower your average cycling speed.
Below are some of the main effects of sleep deprivation as listed by SleepFoundation.org.
Any of these effects by themselves provide motivation to consider improving your sleep and all of them combined should give anyone who values their performance the push to sleep better.
Health & Metabolism
Poor sleep habits can also infiltrate many other areas of our lives outside of physical and mental performance.
Some of the most important areas include:
- Weight management – Lack of sleep disrupts appetite regulation which can lead to you feeling hungrier and eat more as a result. It also becomes more difficult to choose healthy foods, which can have a compounding effect
- Diabetes management – Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to manage insulin levels
- Immune system health – Loss of sleep reduces your immune system’s ability to fight infections such as viruses and other infections
- Mental health – Sleep loss is heavily linked with depression and mood disorders. Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to regulate your emotions and leads to higher stress and lower moods
Bad Night’s Sleep? Don’t Worry
Although these issues can arise with a consistent lack of sleep, having a poor night’s sleep every now and again is inevitable for everybody.
Sometimes it’s not possible to have a great night’s sleep every night, and our body’s ability to adapt allows us to perform at a high level even when slightly sleep-deprived.
With that in mind, don’t worry too much when you’ve had a less-than-ideal night of sleep. Your body has the ability to catch up on following nights, or during the day by napping. Taking a nap can be an excellent way to catch up on Zzzs and is done consistently throughout various cultures.
Train Better by Tracking Sleep and Recovery
Sleep trackers are becoming increasingly popular as the smart device industry expands its technology. Smartwatches, wrist straps, and smart rings are all examples of technology that can monitor sleep and recovery metrics.
These technologies aren’t all equal in their ability to measure effectively. Although, in general, they do a good job of measuring changes to an individual’s baseline measurements once it gets accustomed to your patterns.
For example, the Oura Ring, a smart sleep tracking device, has the ability to measure changes in body temperature, heart rate, heart rate variability, and respiratory rate overnight to give you a “Readiness Score” for the following day.
This score reflects these metrics and shows how well you were able to recover from the previous day. A very interesting benefit of this ring is that it can identify illness before you become symptomatic for a virus such as COVID-19.
These metrics are helpful as they give you a scientific understanding of where you’re at in your recovery. If your readiness score is high but you feel slightly off, you know you can still push hard during your training, whereas if the opposite situation occurs, you know it will be beneficial to take a day off or do recovery work.
3. Recommendations on How to Sleep Better
In this section, we will break down the various ways you can optimize your routine and habits to maximize your sleep quality and duration.
Remember, sleep quality is just as important as the time you spend sleeping and can be significantly affected without being obvious to us as individuals. For example, caffeine intake later in the day can affect individual sleep stages without changing our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Choose a consistent bedtime within a 30-minute period (e.g. 10:30 – 11:00 P.M.) most nights. Your body loves routine and quickly becomes accustomed to sleeping at a specific time. You will automatically get sleepy around this time as long as you are not artificially stimulated
- Set up your bedroom the right way
- Temperature regulation is very important. Most people sleep best with room temperature around 67 Fahrenheit. Others prefer it to be a little warmer. Cool your room in advance of going to bed to fall asleep faster
- Darkness is vital. Ensure your bedroom is devoid of bright lights by using blackout blinds or an eye mask
- A quiet environment will help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Using earplugs or a white noise machine can help if you can’t control the noise around you
- Turn off electronics at least 30 minutes before bed. As light decreases, our body stimulates melatonin production. Melatonin promotes deep sleep. Additionally, technology itself is stimulating and can stop us from feeling sleepy while using it
- De-stress before bed. Activities like meditation, focused deep breathing, journaling, light stretching, or reading can all effectively make us sleepy at night. They can also reduce rumination while in bed
- Dim the lights in your house a couple of hours before bedtime. Use lamps and warm lighting instead of overhead lights or bright, white lights
- Hot or cold exposure. Some people sleep better if they have a hot bath or a short, very cold shower before bed. Test out each to see which works best for you
People often overlook their morning routine when thinking about improving their sleep but it can have a huge impact on your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.
- Get out of bed right away. When your alarm goes off, or if you’ve woken up naturally with enough sleep, don’t hit snooze. Getting moving right away may help you feel awake faster in the morning
- Bright light exposure. Waking up and getting bright light exposure in the first hour or two each morning helps kickstart your body’s circadian clock which regulates sleep hormones among many other processes in the body. This makes you alert during the day and sleepy at night. Ideally, spend at least 10 to 15 minutes outdoors in the morning, whether it’s sunny or cloudy, or a little longer beside a large window if outside isn’t possible.
- Choose a wake-up time. As with the bedtime routine, your body loves it when you can wake up at a similar time each morning and will reward you with sleepiness and wakefulness at the right times
Exercise & Exercise Timing
Exercising during the day, whether it’s going for a bike ride or a brisk evening walk, can help keep our circadian clock regular, reduce stress and overthinking at night, and help us fall asleep faster.
As cyclists, we already appreciate the wonderful feeling of hitting the bed after a long ride in the morning or afternoon.
The most important consideration is the time of day that you exercise. It is best to do intense bouts of exercise such as heavy weight lifting or high heart rate training in the morning or afternoon.
Doing intense exercise in the hours leading up to bed will likely disrupt your ability to sleep due to lingering increases in body temperature and heart rate. However, very light exercise or movement can have the opposite effect.
Nutrition & Hydration
Eating before bed can have a big impact on sleep quality or your ability to fall and stay asleep.
The ideal situation would be to stop eating completely two hours before your bedtime. In addition, eat your last meal 3+ hours before bed.
Lastly, drinking lots of fluids before bed can also make you need to use the bathroom frequently throughout the night, disturbing your sleep. Sipping fluids in the 2-3 hours leading up to hitting the hay can help here.
Caffeine & Alcohol
Coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soft drinks all contain caffeine to varying degrees. Many people can fall asleep after having a coffee in the afternoon or evening, but they are not aware that it is likely affecting the quality of their sleep.
The ‘half-life’ of a stimulant like caffeine is the time it takes your body to break down half the amount of the stimulant you have consumed. After 4 – 8 hours (depending on the person) half of the caffeine that you have consumed is still circulating in your body.
With that in mind, it’s best to consume all of your caffeine before mid-day, especially if your bedtime is before 11 P.M.
Like caffeine, alcohol affects your ability to access adequate deep sleep even though it has a relaxing effect and may help you fall asleep faster.
More than one or two drinks in the evening will likely interfere with your recovery and how rested you feel the following morning.
We hope that you have come away with a better understanding of the importance of sleep and some ideas of how to improve your sleep in a natural, mostly cost-free way.
There are many more techniques including supplements, medication, and other sleep aids that we haven’t covered here because, in general, most of us can improve a lot by working on some of these basics.
Remember, life can always get in the way of a good night’s sleep, but our ability to bounce back and give importance to our sleep will pay dividends in the long run both for cycling and our overall wellness.
If you have persistent sleep issues such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or insomnia, you should certainly seek professional assistance from a doctor. Additionally, before making any significant change to your diet or lifestyle, consult with your primary care physician.