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SLEEP: The Key To Recovery

The fitness industry makes billions of pounds from selling recovery aids every year. From supplements to foam rolling, recovery pods to cryotherapy, but all these expensive aids have been proven to be nowhere near as effective as sleep.


When we exercise, we cause tiny tears in the muscle tissue fibres. The body responds to this damage by rebuilding muscles, bigger and stronger, to enable the body to cope better with the physical demand at the next exposure. Human growth hormone (HGH) plays a huge role in the growth and repair of muscle tissue, a process that’s vital after exercise. HGH is produced in the brains pituitary gland and is predominantly released during slow wave or deep sleep. Unfortunately, as humans age we get less deep sleep and therefore produce less HGH, subsequently we take longer to recover from exercise and also from injuries.


Just as good quality sleep is critical for recovery, a lack of sleep has been proven to negatively impact recovery. Research has shown that sleep deprivation increases levels of a stress related hormone called cortisol. Cortisol has been shown to significantly effect muscle weakness, rapid weight gain, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to reduce the production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use, this also has a significant effect on performance and recovery.

Whilst the science behind why sleep is important is well researched, recent research has looked into the effect of sleep on performance recovery in a sporting scenario. A 2014 study of athletes aged between 12-18 found that those who slept less than eight hours per night were on average 1.7x more likely to be injured in a 21-month period than those who sleep for eight hours or more. This was attributed to the cognitive decline and significant reduction in recovery rates, leaving athletes at a much higher risk of over training. These findings have been confirmed multiple times, including in a 2009 study that found an increase in sleep was directly related to an increase in sprinting speed and shot accuracy in elite tennis players.


So, if we know why it’s important, why don’t we do it? Many factors affect your ability to sleep for the optimal amount of time: an early start, children, needing to see the conclusion to Stranger on Netflix. Essentially, if you want to perform optimally cognitively and physically, you have to make sleep a priority. Some good news is that regular exercisers have been shown to get better sleep than those who don’t, but there are other things that can help you get your eight hours.


Making sleep a priority is important. Schedule your life in a way that allows you to wind down before the time you need to get to sleep. Get to bed and wake up at a similar time every day, your body likes a routine so find what works for you and stick to it. Make your bedroom a screen free zone! I can guess why this is a problem as it was my excuse too.. “I need my phone as my alarm”. Well, it turns out you really don’t! An alarm clock costs around £5 so, get one and leave your phone outside your bedroom.

When building up to a competitions it’s recommended that you try and gradually increase your sleep several weeks before, again maximising your recovery and performance. Whilst sleep is really crucial, don’t worry if the night before a competition you have one bad night’s sleep! This is unlikely to have a significant effect on your performance, so try not to worry if anxiety makes sleep impossible one night before a comp.


Finally, sleep really is the most powerful recovery tool known to science, so, my advice would be to really lay the foundations for good quality and consistent sleep before you spend a fortune on fancy recovery aids.


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