How to reap maximum benefits while you snooze

Your planned workout today is chest and triceps followed by cardio, and like your last several training sessions, you’re tired and listless after 20 minutes on the treadmill. What’s up? You’ve taken the steps to fuel your body properly and have been careful not to overtrain, so why can’t you muster up the energy for a great workout? It could be that you’re not sleeping.

Don’t be so quick to ignore poor sleep habits as a potential problem. The body does not grow per se during a strength-training workout, but compensates by adapting to the stress placed on it. It’s during the recovery phase, which requires enough sleep and proper nutrition, that the body actually starts building muscle. If you aren’t getting the sleep you need, you’re missing out on these benefits and more.

Restoring Your Fuel Tanks

While sleep deprivation can have varying effects on your health, it can definitely hamper the way your body metabolizes certain foods and your preparation for athletic performance. University of Chicago researchers Karine Spiegel, PhD, Rachel Leproult and Eve Van Cauter, MD, report in the Lancet that too little sleep makes a big difference. They measured the carbohydrate metabolism and endocrine function of 11 young men whose sleep time was reduced to four hours per night for six nights, then compared the numbers to when the same test subjects were allowed to recover by sleeping 12 hours per night for six nights. In their sleep-deprived state, the participants’ glucose tolerance was lower and the stress hormone cortisol was higher. After the recovery phase, these measurements returned to normal.

This study shows that if you aren’t getting the sleep you need to metabolize glucose effectively, your ability to secrete insulin and respond to insulin and glucose in your blood is dramatically reduced. Sleep deprivation also makes it difficult for your body to refill those all-important glycogen stores in your muscles that help fuel exercise. When those stores are empty, you hit that proverbial wall. Continuing your workout feels and is difficult, making it harder to continue and thus reducing its effectiveness. As for muscle repair, elevated levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol may impede tissue repair and growth, which makes it more difficult to recover from strenuous workouts and even leaves you prone to injury.

Staging Sleep

Yet merely lying in bed for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re getting quality sleep. Your brain goes through a series of stages once your eyes close, eliminating all visual stimulation, before your body reaches a deep sleep. Only when you fall into this deep sleep do you receive restful benefits. Your breathing becomes more regular, your heart rate slows down and your brain is less responsive during this stage. The pituitary gland also produces growth hormone that helps stimulate muscle growth and tissue repair.

Every so often you may find that environmental factors like noise and light or emotional factors like anxiety disturb this all-important recovery period. You can help set the stage for sound sleep by following this advice:

* Make use of earplugs or eye shades. If a snoring spouse or loud neighbors make falling sleep difficult, use earplugs to lessen the noise or a white-noise machine to negate it. If too much light comes into your bedroom even after your doors and window shades have been shut, eye shades can help.

* Look at pre-sleep behavior. Establish a routine before bedtime, such as reading pleasant material, listening to gentle music, or doing some light stretching or yoga. Avoid a lot of television before bed. Let your body and mind wind down.

* Don’t eat or train right before you go to bed. Fisher explains: It’s important to allow at least three or four hours after eating and training before trying to sleep. The body is too busy digesting food and cannot slow down enough for a person to really feel drowsy. If you must eat close to bedtime, eat just a palm-sized portion of protein.

* Check your mattress. It shouldn’t be too soft or too firm; otherwise, your spine and body’s natural contours won’t be properly supported. Spinal support is key to quality, restorative sleep. If the spine is not aligned due to a non-supportive sleep surface–which isn’t necessarily uncomfortable, so don’t be fooled–a person’s back muscles work throughout the night in an attempt to position the spine properly. As a result, he or she wakes up feeling sore and unrested.

* Consult your physician if none of these tips help, especially if your sleeping pattern continues to deteriorate. Keep a sleep journal beforehand so you and your physician can troubleshoot your sleeping habits.

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