How To Get A Good Night’s Sleep

Sleep, one of the most important things we can do for our body, and yet still 1 in 3 adults do not get enough of it.1 While most of us are endurance athletes, it typically goes without saying that we care about our bodies, we care about our performance, and we want to feel good while we exercise. So then what are we doing to answer our question of why don’t I feel good, or why was my session bad, etc.? Perhaps the answer to this is not in a tub of protein powder, but simply the place where we lay our heads to rest. 

When was the last time you had 9-10 hours of sleep for consecutive nights? If you are laughing or scratching your head because it has been decades since that happened, it could be time to rethink your sleep schedule. The current recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7-9 hours per night, while for athletes it is suggested to aim for 9-10 hours. While it would be wonderful to hit these goals, they are not always possible. You have a family, work, training, and other obligations in life. Fitting in 10 hours of sleep is not on the top of your to-do list. For many endurance athletes juggling additional life responsibilities, your training occurs well before the sun rises, which means you would have to be in bed by 7 or 8 pm in order to hit this target…probably not gonna happen! Not only are the early training hours altering your sleep schedule, but then you factor in traveling, altitude (depending upon where you live), changing time zones, you name it; it all adds up to decreasing our sleep time. 

Understanding the importance of sleep and what occurs while we sleep can help us shift a greater light of importance on this recovery tool. While we have discussed that lack of sleep affects our training, it also affects much more than our endurance activities. Decreased sleep can increase our chances of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and weaken our immune system. Not only can lack of sleep affect us physically, but perhaps more so mentally. Decreased sleep has been linked to depression, irritability, and disturbed mood states. Let’s take a closer look below at what occurs when we finally do shut our eyes to sleep.

Stages of Sleep

Deep Sleep

Deep sleep is our body’s repair mode. This stage is where we restore and rejuvenate from the day’s activities, stressors, etc. Deep sleep helps with the following:

  • muscles grow 
  • immune system refreshes 
  • increasing our immune defense
  • brain activity recovery
  • decrease in blood pressure
  • decrease in breathing rate
  • decrease in heart rate

Adults need around 15-20% of their total night’s sleep to be in deep sleep. So for example, if you sleep for 7 hours, then you need around 60-90 minutes of your sleep to be in the deep sleep stages. These stages are broken up throughout the night and typically occur early on in the night. 

REM Sleep

REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement, is where we dream. Though some of us may say we do not dream, or can’t remember dreams, it is also the stage where we are consolidating our memories and processing emotions. This stage of sleep is critical since it is when we process stress. Stress includes both physical and mental stress in our lives. Stress as many of us know by now increases a hormone known as cortisol. REM sleep begins about 90 minutes after we fall asleep and constitutes around 20-25% of our total sleep time. Again, using the example of 7 hours of sleep, this would mean that 90-120 minutes of our total sleep time should be in REM sleep. During REM sleep we see a decrease in cortisol, which is important in bringing our body back to homeostasis. The detriment of not getting enough REM sleep is that we leave our bodies in a heightened state of arousal. Pair this with increasing physical stress from training, and soon we are riding a fine line between injury and illness. 

Light Sleep

The final stage, known as light sleep, is a transitional stage. While asleep, you cycle between all three stages of sleep throughout the night. Around 50% of your total sleep time is in this stage of light sleep. You can even experience very brief times of awakening that you won’t remember. In fact, you have “bursts of awakening” on average between 5-20 times. While it may not seem like a lot is going on in light sleep, it is an important part of the full sleep cycle. Without it, we cannot enter into the other two stages. 

Listening to Your Body 

Technology today allows us to have wearable devices to track our sleep cycles, heart rate, and heart rate variability. While having this knowledge at our fingertips is great, do not ignore the tried and true method of doing your own systems check and assessing how you feel. While an app may say you are 100% rested, you may feel tired and run down. These are the times that it is important to listen to your body! Make decisions on your training based on how you feel. If you start your warm-up in preparation for a big session, but can’t seem to get your heart rate above Zone 1, then perhaps it is good to move the session to another day. Getting in a few extra days of quality sleep can be extremely beneficial in recovery. Perhaps you know you will struggle with not completing a session, and we have all been there: the guilt sets in that you didn’t complete the training as prescribed. While we all want to get the gold star for having all green activities in the SYSTM Training App….it is not always possible. Don’t be afraid to adjust your session! Adding in additional strain to an already stressed system will decrease your sleep, and especially your REM sleep…hint remember this is where you are doing your deep recovery, to begin with! 

Helpful Tips

Research supports that viewing bright light early in the day and throughout the day can help you adjust your circadian rhythm. If you have a hard time waking up, try getting out of bed and immediately heading outside for a brief walk in the sunlight. Live in an area with little sun? Try turning on lights that your eyes can easily adjust to! 

Many of us know that “blue light,” is bad for our sleep cycles, especially right before bed. Did you know that all light, no matter the color, also is bad for our sleep? Try avoiding bright light between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am. This type of light directly affects neurotransmitters and hormones in our brain that affect our mood, well-being, and metabolism. 

Finally, try to set a sleep schedule. It can be easy to have a forever fluctuating bedtime, but that does not help our bodies set a rhythm. If you get up for a training session on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:30 am, try setting this same schedule for Tuesday and Thursday as well. This will help your body not only adjust to going to bed early but adjust to waking up earlier feeling more refreshed. 


  2. The Knowledge Podcast Wahoo Sports Science
Dr. Jinger S. Gottschall, earned her doctoral degree in integrative physiology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and continued her academic career as a postdoctoral fellow in neurophysiology at the Emory School of Medicine. She was an associate professor at The Pennsylvania State University studying the effectiveness of various exercise regimens for 12 years. For the last 25 years she coached running and triathlon endurance athletes from the recreational to the professional. Most importantly, Jinger has a passion for physical activity and appreciates the paramount importance of promoting balanced, quality training programs.
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