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Run4It Journal  •  Health & Wellbeing •  26.11.2020 •  5 min read

The importance of sleep for recovery

Run4It are delighted to be the brand sponsor of Season 2 Episode 8 of the Female Athlete Podcast on Recovery exploring sleep, the science behind different strategies and why recovery is so important, with Dr Shona Halson. This is our write-up of the episode. 

6 key takeaways from the recovery episode

Nail the foundations of recovery (like sleep and nutrition) before turning to additional recovery strategies

There’s a place for additional recovery strategies like compression, cold water immersion and soft tissue therapy or massage, but these are not to be used in place of, or at the expense of, the fundamentals.

"I think of recovery as a pyramid. Your foundations at the bottom are your good sleep, your nutrition and your mental recovery (so your downtime)… it’s best if you can prioritise those three areas" ~ Dr Shona Halson

The power of sleep

Why is sleep so important for recovery? Sleep gives both the body and brain downtime to recover. The recovery period after training, whether physical or cognitive, is important for building adaptation and encouraging improvements in performance. Sleep is one of the main tools you can use to optimise your performance, and the best part is that it’s free!

How much sleep do you need?

Research supports 8 hours as a general recommendation. But it’s important to remember that sleep is genetically influenced and everyone’s sleep needs are different.

You might be someone who has a lower quality sleep and therefore naturally require more sleep to feel rested. Or, you might cope well with less sleep (5 or 6 hours) because you are a deep, high quality sleeper. There’s a trade-off between sleep quality and quantity, so experts advocate an individualised approach to sleep duration (rather than an absolute amount for everyone).

"it’s important to remember that sleep is genetically influenced and everyone’s sleep needs are different."

Why tracking sleep can be helpful.

Tracking how many hours of sleep you're averaging a night, and how you feel during your waking hours, can help you establish your baseline and set up a good sleep routine. Improving your recovery – and, ultimately, your performance.

There’s no need to invest in sleep tracking devices. Simply writing down your sleep and wake times to calculate how many hours you tend to get. And keeping note of how you feel at different times of the day (first thing vs after lunch vs on your commute home, for example) is the most effective way to determine if you’re catching enough Zzzz’s.

In this article by Nike Training, Shona advocates drawing insights from the data and adjusting your bedtime up by 30 minutes a night until you're no longer tired during the day.

runner holding a warm drink
Photo by Ronhill

What might disturb your sleep?

Temperature, noise, light, caffeine, alcohol, excessive hydration and/or stress.

Sleep hygiene and suggestions for setting up a good sleep routine:

Create a bedtime routine
  • Establish a regular bed time and wake time
  • Turn off electronic devices
  • Try reading/meditation to wind down
Shape your environment
  • Is your bedroom cool, dark and quiet?
Other considerations
  • Watch your daily caffeine consumption

"Never stay up late for something you wouldn’t get up early for"

The odd bad night’s sleep won’t hurt

Try not to stress over one bad night. Research conducted with athletes suggests that you need between 2-5 nights of reduced sleep before you see negative effects on performance.

It’s normal to struggle to fall asleep after late-night exercise

Shona explains how important it is to allow yourself time to relax and wind down before heading to bed (no matter how late you finish), in order to help both the mind and body switch off and relax, and ease into a good night’s sleep.

"If you go to stop at a stop sign, you don’t just stop at a stop sign, you have to gradually slow down, and the faster you’re going, the further away you have to start to slow down and it’s the same with sleep, you can’t just hop into bed and go “I’m going to stop.”

Recovery strategies which may help after vigorous late-night exercise

  • Try contrast baths or ice baths to drop the body temperature if it’s still elevated post-match or training session
  • Get your nutrition right (consider and curb your caffeine intake)
  • Wear compression to reduce inflammation and soreness
  • Experiment with things that help may you relax (whether reading, listening to a podcast or breathing exercises), find what works and repeat continually until it triggers a conditioned response – telling your body you are about to sleep

Recovery is a return to homeostasis or balance

What is recovery? Shona describes it as return to homeostasis or balance.

"Exercise is a disturber of balance, of homeostasis… bringing the body back to balance."

She explains in the podcast how an over focus on training, led to a recognition and realisation that we can’t just train, train, train and that recovery time is vital to muscle repair and adaptation.

woman putting ronhill jacket on
Photo by Ronhill

Additional recovery strategies (the fancier strategies) are particularly beneficial when it comes to acute recovery i.e. for those exercising/training/competing on consecutive days (whether amateurs or elites), where it’s important and beneficial to speed up the recovery process as much as possible.

Additional recovery strategies proven to help recovery (particularly acute recovery)

  • Compression: Targets body temperature, increases blood flow. Helps reduce swelling and inflammation, and speed recovery by increasing oxygen delivery to muscles and removal of metabolic waste products.
  • Cold water immersion: Targets body temperature and also acts on hydrostatic pressure, which can reduce inflammation and soreness.
  • Soft tissue therapy or massage
  • Electrical stimulation or brain stimulation

There's merit in using these recovery strategies for immediate (acute) recovery. Or using them periodically, as part of a periodised training program, to support long-term performance goals.

Thanks to Dr Shona Halson and Female Athlete Podcast co-hosts, Lucy and Georgie, for an informative and interesting episode!

About The Female Athlete Podcast

The Female Athlete Podcast inspires confidence and empowerment through education and conversation about the female body.

Find out more here:

woman running towards camera
I think of recovery as a pyramid. Your foundations at the bottom are your good sleep, your nutrition and your mental recovery (so your downtime)… it’s best if you can prioritise those three areas ~ Dr Shona Halson

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