Using Sleep Tracking To Make Performance Gains

Sleep is 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. Many of us are endurance athletes, and it usually goes without saying that we care about our bodies, we care about our performance, and we want to feel good while we exercise. If this is the case, what are we doing to answer our question of “why don’t we feel good,” or why was our 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 at 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. 

Do you currently have a way to track your sleep? Many of us do not, instead  just count the time we last check our phone to the time we roll out of bed as our “total sleep time.” As technology advancements in wearable devices, like the RIVAL Sports Watch, become more intertwined with our lives, we are able to accurately track our sleep cycles. While knowing our total sleep time is important, perhaps what is even more important is being able to see what goes on while we are sleeping. Are we actually “awake” more than we realized? Do we spend most of our time in REM or light sleep? All of these data points can help us not only visually see what goes on when we shut our eyes but can help us to better understand why today or this week’s training has been a bit hit and miss. Perhaps it answers the all-too-asked question of, “I don’t know why I’m so tired!” 

When we have the data to view, it can give us our first stepping stone into taking actionable steps towards better health and better performance. Think of this like a power test on the bike: you begin a training plan and need a starting point. Without this starting point, you’re starting off in the dark. Once we have clear data of where we are starting from, then we can build a training plan around this in order to drive towards the ultimate goal. The same thought process can be said of tracking sleep. Once we have the metrics to understand “what” is going on, we can then implement strategies to practice or “train” ourselves into better sleep. 

Understanding the importance of sleep and what occurs while we sleep can help us shed light on the importance of 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 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 Metrics

Technology today allows us to have wearable devices to track our sleep cycles, heart rate, and heart rate variability. While using the RIVAL watch alongside the ELEMENT Companion App, allows you to track your sleep metrics easily. 

In your ELEMENT Companion App, your RIVAL will record biometric data as you sleep and then upload this information seamlessly to the app. You will see the following breakdown of sleep stages:

  1. Awake
  2. Light Sleep
  3. Deep Sleep
  4. REM Sleep

Once your sleep is uploaded, you will be able to view the nightly breakdown of your own personal sleep stages. You’ll be able to view your total sleep duration, time spent in each sleep stage, and view it all along a timestamp throughout the night. Once you have begun to keep a consistent record of your sleep, you can then start to view weekly sleep trends and totals. 

Using a sleep tracker can help you not only visually see the trends, but then help you understand why some days your training feels a bit sluggish compared to others. 

Now that you have the metrics, what can you do? If you start to notice that you spend a large majority of your time awake at the start of the sleep cycle, perhaps you need to assess what your current nighttime routine is. Are you looking at a screen for large amounts of time prior to sleep? Are you reading an enticing book that keeps you alert and stirring even when you put it down, or perhaps you had a stressful day and it is hard to unwind. Take the time to pay attention and bring awareness to how you begin to wind down, this can help you prepare to improve your time to fall asleep. Below are additional tips to help you increase your sleep quality and therefore quantity! 

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 very 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. 

References

  1. https://sleepeducation.org/cdc-americans-sleep-deprived/#:~:text=The%20Centers%20for%20Disease%20Control,wheel%20in%20the%20past%20month.
  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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