“Sleep is the most powerful recovery aid out there,” says retired American cyclist and 2012 U.S. Road Race champion Timmy Duggan.
A study recently found that most athletes don’t sleep enough and one in four suffer from a significant sleep disorder such as trouble falling asleep. My clients often have trouble getting enough sleep for one or more reasons. In the 21st century many people are trying to get more done, to fit more thing into already packed days.
One client routinely stayed up until midnight or later researching on-line what equipment was best, what he should eat, alternative supplements, etc. Then he’d get up at 6 a.m., put in a long day running his business, squeeze in a training ride and stay up late again.
I told him that it was far more important that he get enough sleep instead of trying to do more research on how to improve as a rider. As part of his training log, I added a field in which he reported every day on what time he went to bed and when he got up and I tallied his hours of sleep for the week. The goal was a total of 56 hours (average of 8 hours / night).
Why is Sleep So Important?
Why does getting enough sleep matter? Obviously, if you’re tired you won’t train as well, but there’s far more to it than that. The day after a hard workout your legs may hurt. That’s caused by Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). DOMS is the result of micro tears in your muscle fibers, not accumulated lactic acid.
Your body produces Human Growth Hormone (HGH) to stimulate muscle repair – but it only produces HGH when you are asleep! Thus, not getting enough sleep hampers recovery. According to Joe Friel, this is a particular problem for us older riders. As we age, our bodies produce less HGH, making good sleep that much more important.
How do you know if you aren’t getting enough sleep? According to Dr. William Dement, if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you aren’t getting enough sleep. Dr. Dement, a Stanford University researcher, is one of the pioneers of sleep research and advised me on sleep issues when I was training for the Race Across AMerica (RAAM).
What Causes Sleeplessness?
Anxiety about how you’ll do on an important ride or in an event often causes insomnia. We’ve all been there, haven’t we! Over the years I learned from personal experience that if I get enough sleep the week before an event, then tossing and turning the night before won’t hurt my riding.
For clients who suffer from anxiety about riding I include in the client’s workouts a simple breathing and relaxation exercise. The client’s daily program includes just 10 minutes of the breathing and relaxation exercise every morning, and the rider has to report on the weekly training log how much time he or she spent each day. If a client has insomnia I prescribe doing the relaxation before bed. This helps the client to fall asleep and, if he or she wakes up in the middle of the night, instead of lying awake fretting, they have a tool to use to calm down and get back to sleep.
In the past I have written about Elizabeth Wicks in her early 70s, and how we use marginal gains to improve her performance. She trained to ride the PAC Tour Northern Transcontinental from Everett, Washington, to Boston, Massachusetts. Her daily average for the event is 113 miles with 3,556 ft. of climbing over 31 days. To help her sleep better on the tour, I’m using a tip from Team Sky. Ian Boswell and the other riders who race for Team Sky travel with their pillows and some of their bedding from home so that when they’re racing, their beds feel more familiar and they sleep better.
If you think about it, among the most common things that kids reflexively bring along on trips to feel more comfortable are pillows and blankets! We adults just need to be reminded of their value.
Soreness Also Hampers Good Sleep
Another reason for not sleeping well, of course, is soreness.
Eric Young, an American pro who won the United States National Criterium Championship in 2011 and 2013 says, “When I’m training really hard, I’ll add a massage because I want to make sure I’m recovering as fast as I can.”
Michelle Grainger is a former mountain bike pro and avid roadie who has finished solo RAAM and Paris-Brest-Paris. She lives in Boulder, Colorado and trained me for several years. She suggests using “the pillar of pain” on my sore legs. It’s a 3-foot (1m) long hard foam roller, which you can get from REI and similar stores. The photo shows how to use it for a tight IT band. I move my body back and forth, causing the roller to roll along my leg. It hurts while I do it, but it’s very effective. (See photo.)
My 16-page eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance describes 10 different recovery methods and is illustrated with 14 photos, including showing both how to give yourself a traditional massage with your hands and also with the hard foam roller.
I was at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine with a client last year. She was preparing for a transcon tour and the trainer recommended using an 18-inch hard roller muscle massager to take with her. I like the idea and got one for myself, which I keep by my desk to use for a few minutes several times a day.
You may be thinking, “Coach Hughes is telling me to get more sleep and now he’s telling me to give myself a massage, which would take time I don’t have.” How can you fit more into your schedule?
In 1986 Pete Penseyres rode 3,107 miles (5,000 km) at an average of 15.40 mph (24.78 km/h) in the RAAM. His average speed record stood until 2014! Pete trained 30 – 40 hours a week in addition to working full time! He knew stretching was important to his recovery, so every night he stretched and ate ice cream while watching TV with his family. (Yes, you read that right – but we’re not discussing nutrition in this article!)
The best way to find more time to stretch, give yourself a massage, practice yoga, ice painful joints, get more sleep, etc., is to train less! My friend and fellow coach Neal Henderson says that 65% of the athletes he sees train too much, 25% train too little and 10% get it right. The 10% are the pros who are paid to perform. Henderson is the former Director of Sports Science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He coaches clients ranging from novices to world and Olympic champions. He currently coaches for BMC Racing Team.
My eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance explains 10 different recovery techniques including post-ride nutrition, stretching, self-massage, icing and compression garments and is illustrated with 14 photos. The 16 page eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance is just $4.99.
Optimal Recovery is also included in the 140-page bundle The Best of Coach Hughes.
How to Become a Better Cyclist: The Six Success Factors – A new eArticle totaling 36 pages.
Your Best Season Ever, Part 1: A 32-page eArticle on how to plan and get the most out of your training. Published in 2015.
Intensity Training: A 41-page eArticle with the latest information on how to use perceived exertion, a heart rate monitor and a power meter to maximize training effectiveness.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.