As a student of life, I value recommendations from colleagues and friends about how I can be a better communicator, employee, and so on. In that context I was recently introduced to Freakonomics Radio and was surprised to find that the episode I happened to listen in on was something that I could apply to being a better coach and athlete.

The one that I am referencing was a rebroadcast of the Economics of Sleep. One of the aspects of the broadcast was working on the quality of sleep and early morning alertness. Because of my experience as an athlete and a coach, I understand that sleep is very important to performance and is one of the most effective recovery tools available. What caught my attention was the notion that we should move beyond the question of how long we sleep and rather examine the quality of our sleep. The following is my synopsis of the broadcast for which I know will leave you with new ideas on how to improve the quality of your sleep.
In training, the era of junk miles is gone! Through years of trial and error and research, we know that simply putting out a number to hit every week (for example, run 40 miles a week to be a faster marathoner, or ride 100 miles to be a better cyclist) is bunk. What’s the point of running 40 miles a week but you never work close to your goal pace? So in crossing over to sleep, why do we just blankly accept that X amount of hours of sleep, regardless of the quality, will cut it?
Turns out, the 8 hour rule we’ve been handed stands up to research (see the Sleep Foundation’s study) but, during those 8 hours we need many rounds of REM and non REM cycles. All sleep stages provide certain benefits (reduction of cortisol, increase of growth hormones, etc.), much like variety in training leads to gains.
There are many ways to set yourself for a great night’s sleep (no caffeine after 3 pm, have a quiet, dark, and cool room, use ear plugs and an eye mask, have a regular bed time and routine) but one that is often over looked because it’s so new is to quit using screens (TV, tablet, phone and e-reader) at least 60 minutes before bed time.
A paper published in 2014, looked at the effects of using a device or screen in the hour before bed and found that nearly all of the participants who did experienced “prolonged time it takes to fall asleep, delays in the circadian clock, suppressed levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduction in the amount of and delays in the timing of REM sleep, and reduced alertness the following morning”. Sounds like a recipe for skipping or slogging your early morning workout, huh?
My first take away was to set “time off” from devices – set limits and boundaries. The researcher in the interview (Lauren Hale) has a little trouble following her own advice, but for a week between episodes, she challenged herself to avoid screens from 9 pm to 7 am. She found that this particular schedule gave her a better early night sleep, but also better late night/early morning sleep, as after doing her newborn’s 5 am feeding she would go back to bed rather than start to check email. Personally, I’m been sticking to a 9/9:30 cut off and have only been waking up 1-2 times a night without my usual tossing and turning (I was/am a chronic tablet gamer). Two nights ago, I slept straight through! I honestly don’t remember the last time that happened!
The second take away was that an increase of 1 hour of sleep per week (which is less than 10 minutes per night) results in a 4.5% increase in productivity. While I don’t think that translates directly to watts, I cannot help but that think in terms of productivity for triathlon training, it would allow for greater concentration and an ability to aim for the upper end of the range (for instance, when shooting for 110-120% of threshold and with better technique. Hale, herself, found that keeping to a start time for her screen time actually gave her nearly 90 extra minutes of sleep!
Sleep is the most important and easiest training recovery tool we have, yet it still astounds me how often it gets overlooked or neglected. I highly suggest giving both parts of the broadcast a listen; there’s a lot more in them than I’ve discussed here that doesn’t directly deal with training, but there may be pieces that speak to your triathlon journey.
 
Coach Leigh Dodd believes that passion and drive will take you a long way in triathlon! Put those qualities to work within the context of a structured plan and you’re off to a great start. Add in relaxation on a regular basis and there will be no stopping you! It may seem counter intuitive at first, but planning time for both quality training and quality downtime is the key to great results!

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