Sleep, Recovery, and Fitness

Sleep, Recovery and Fitness

Get fitter in your sleep

When you follow a well planned training program over a period of time, your body gets fitter. Most people would acknowledge that. Exercise=fitness. Full stop. Right? Not necessarily.

One of the really important components of fitness, and one that gets overlooked way too often, is recovery. And one of the really important components of recovery is sleep. I’ve written before on how chronic sleep deprivation can inhibit weight loss, and in fact cause us to gain weight, but today I wanted to look at how sleeping helps you to get fitter.

But firstly, we need to look at how training gets you fitter.

A guy named Hans Selye described how the body responds to the stress of exercise, using what he termed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Basically, the body goes through a set of specific short term responses, and longer term adaptations, after being exposed to a stressor. The body goes through three stages in response to a stressor. Exercise is one such stressor.

Stage 1: Alarm or shock. This is the immediate response to the stress of exercise, and can include feeling flat, sore or stiff and a bit tired. The fitter you are, the greater the stress needed to induce this shock phase. Hence, it’s really important to have a training program that takes into account your individual fitness level.

Stage 2: Adaptation or resistance. The body responds to repeated bouts of training. It thinks, “Crikey, if she’s going to keep doing this to me, I’d better do something about getting stronger”. The body equips itself with the tools to survive further stress of the type you are imposing on it. This can include nervous system adaptations, hormonal changes, and tissue building, just to name a few.  You need to have stressed your body sufficiently in stage 1, for adaptations to take place in stage 2.

Stage 3: Exhaustion. This is the stage you never want to reach. It’s simply put, over training. Too much training and not enough recovery. There’s just too much stress for the body to be able to adapt.

Stage 1 stress, Stage 2 adaptaition, Stage 3 exhaustion

The Role of Sleep In Recovery

For anyone at least partially serious about their fitness, harder training is a double edged sword. It can be the key to greater fitness, but can also send your body over the top towards injury and illness. Exercise can cause heaps of stress to joints and ligaments, muscles, the nervous system, and the endocrine (or hormonal) system. And yet, it’s the stimulus your body needs to signal it to get stronger to make itself better able to cope with that stress of exercise.

Recovery takes place anytime you ease off with your workload. You can still actually be exercising whilst you are recovering (most training programs will include a recovery every 3-5 weeks where you ease back on your training-and if yours doesn’t, it should), but it’s when you’re at rest that the greatest training adaptations take place. Sleep is the ultimate rest period in which your body can adapt to all your hard training.

During sleep, hormones such as the rejuvenating Human Growth Homone (HGH) reach their peak. Your immune system gets a recovery boost when you’re asleep, and neurotransmitters in the brain are replenished. There’s an amazing amount of biochemical activity going on inside your body when you are asleep.

Human growth hormone is important for well, yes, growth. It’s also linked with fat loss, muscle tone, immune health and the firmness and elasticity of your skin. Mostly, when HGH receives a natural boost, it’s  a good thing, and sleep causes HGH secretion to peak. So, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not getting the maximum levels of HGH your body can produce, and directly adversely effecting your performance.

Kids who don't get enough sleep

The other really critical thing sleep promotes is the replenishment of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals which transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell in the body. They regulate quite a few physical and emotional processes, including mental performance, emotional states, and the pain response. All of these are important for physical fitness. If your neurotransmitters aren’t working effectively, you won’t get much done in any part of your life, let alone your recreational exercise.

With your neurotransmitters under functioning, you’re likely not to be in a great emotional state to train. Day after day you’ll be having “one of those days” where you just don’t feel like you can do much of anything. You wake up just knowing that exercise isn’t going to happen today, unless you have someone drag you  kicking and screaming to your workout.

Of course, it’s very easy for me to say get more sleep. If insomnia isn’t an issue, often it’s just a case of not being in bed for long enough that prevents us from getting enough sleep. Turn off the TV, shut down social media channels, and get to bed. And make sure all your electronic devices are on the other side of the door!

If you’re keen to give your training a boost, find out how online coaching can help. 

Should you run when you’re sick?

Should you run when sick?

It’s winter. The mornings are cold, the early evenings are dark and we get the odd drop of rain or two. Throw into the mix a cough and a runny nose, and you have the perfect storm for an excuse to miss a session….or do you?

Everything in moderation they say, and it’s the same with exercise when you’re feeling a bit run down. If you have an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), that is, your symptoms are above the neck – sore throat, runny nose, congestion-you should still be able to get a workout in, but at a lighter intensity than normal. (Make sure you tell your trainer if you’re a bit under the weather).

When you shouldn’t work out

It could be a good time to put your feet up if your symptoms are below the neck (chest congestion and coughing, vomiting, diarrhoea), or ir you have a high fever, muscle aches and widsrpread fatigue.  If your symptoms indicate an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) – congested nose, sneezing, sore throat, then you’re most likely good to go, albeit at a reduced workload.

Note that you should stop exercising if your symptoms get worse as a result of exercising.

If you’re looking for information about exercising with an injury, I’ve written an article on managing and working out with overuse injuries

Guidelines for exercising with a URTI or gastrointestinal upset

Day one: No strenuous exercise or competitions if you have URTI symptoms like sore through, coughing, runny or congested nose. No exercise at all if muscle/joint pain and headache, fever, or general feelings of fatigue, vomiting or diarrhoea.

Keep the fluids up, try not to get wet and cold, and keep your general stress to a minimum.

Day Two: If you have a temperature greater than 37.5 degrees C, or if your coughing has increased, or you have vomiting or diarrhoea, no training.

If you have no fever of feelings of fatigue, just above the neck symptoms, light exercise is fine. 30-45 mins with heart rate under approx. 120 beats per minute

Day Three: If you still have a fever or gastrointestinal symptoms, see a doctor.

If your doctor puts you on antibiotics, you should ask not to be prescribed antibiotics from the quinolone family if possible, as they can increase the risk of tendinopathy. Hopefully, you would not have to take the medication for long enough for that to be an issue, but if it can be avoided, you may as well ask for something else (and make your doctor once again curse the inventor of the internet!)

If you don’t have a fever or general feeling of fatigue and weakness, and your initial symptoms haven’t worsened, you can progress to moderate exercise with your pulse under 150 beats per minute for 45-60 minutes.

If your symptoms have remained the same as they were on day 2, keep the exercise light.

Day Four: See your doctor if your symptoms are not getting better. Don’t try to exercise.

If your symptoms continue to improve, keep the exercise light to moderate for a few more days.

 Some Additional Thoughts

  • Monitor your response to training whilst you are sick, and if your symptoms get worse, drop the training load back to very light, or discontinue exercising until the symptoms improve.
  • If you have had to stop exercising as a result of illness, take the same number of days to get back to pre-sickness fitness, as you have taken off from exercising. So if you’ve not exercised for 5 days due to illness, allow yourself at least 5 days to gradually get back into it.
  • And don’t stress, it doesn’t take long to get your fitness back.

Position Statement Part two: Maintaining immune health Neil P. Walsh1, Michael Gleeson2, David B. Pyne3, David C. Nieman4, Firdaus S. Dhabhar5, Roy J. Shephard6, Samuel J. Oliver1, Stéphane Bermon7, Alma Kajeniene8.

Ronsen O. Prevention and management of respiratory tract infections in athletes. New Stud Athlet 20: 49-56, 2005