Sleep: How important is it?

Image result for sleeping on bikeBeing a notoriously light sleeper, over time I feel I’ve developed a decent grasp of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting to sleep, and having suffered with insomnia in the past I can share first hand the impact it can have on training, racing and in day to day life.

Why do we sleep?

In short, we don’t really know! There are a number of theories as to why sleep is important, some of the more well established theories state that sleep holds important restorative and consolidatory functions (particularly important functions when training as a triathlete!). While others state that sleep can elimate unwanted byproducts in the brain, saving itself energy,  and that we sleep to dream (which some scientists say can help in the processing of events).

How much sleep do you need?

The first thing to say is that sleep is a very individual phenomenom (and also one that is still not completely understood!) and there can be vast discrepancies in what consititutes a decent night sleep between one person and another. You will often hear people say that 8 hours is the optimal duration for a good nights sleep. However, in reality some people can perform at their best after 4 hours sleep a night, while others may need 9 hours to feel on top form (N.B. for most the optimal amount of sleep will be somewhere between 7-9 hours)

Is it possible to function on very little to no sleep?  Well for me personally, I feel in the short term yes, but in the long term probably not. For example, I’ve raced an olympic distance triathlon having had about 30 minutes sleep the night before and was still able to perform suprisingly well! On the other hand I’ve gone through periods where I have had 4 hours sleep for 3 to 4 consectutive days (with an optimal night sleep for me being around 7.5 hours) and have found by about the 3rd or 4th day, day to day functioning (let alone training) becomes a real struggle. During these times, I have a feeling of fuzzy headedness marked by poor concentration, loss of coordination, and word finding difficulties. I am also more irritable, feel physically fatigued and lethargic and will often get headaches or migraines. I can totally forget what it feels like to be fully rested and find thoughts of tiredness very difficult to escape from. The mental and physical fatigue that arise are probably a result of ‘sleep debt’, due to partial sleep deprivation.

When going through periods of poor sleep, it can become very frustrating, particularly Image result for frustration at not sleepingwhen lying in bed wide awake for hours on end waiting for sleep to come. I’ve found that the best solution during these times is accepting that you are going through a difficult period of sleep and that it’s not the end of the world! The more you think about not being able to sleep and the impact it will have on you the next day, the more difficult sleep will become. This just isn’t helpful!

How to structure your sleep schedule

A sleep schedule is important, as consistent sleep and wake times over the course of the whole week (not just weekdays!) ensures our natural sleep cycle remains in sync. Irregular sleep patterns can confuse this natural cycle. For those of you that enjoy your weekend lie-ins there is evidence to suggest that this can actually make you feel more tired, due to the way this interferes with our natural sleep cycle (Jernelov, 2016).

When structuring your sleep schedule it is important first to become aware of your own natural circadian rythym (your internal body clock) and identify whether you are a morning type of evening type person. If you are a morning type person you will typically perform at your best and be at your most productive during the morning, and vice versa if you are an evening type person. When structuring your training it is important to try and capitalise on these productive periods and schedule in key sessions at these times.Image result for post lunch dip

You may already be familiar with the ‘post lunch dip’, that feeling that occurs in the early afternoon (usually between 1 and 3pm) where you can be overcome by drowsiness and all you want to do is crawl under your desk and sleep. I know this always hits me particularly hard! Although, this feeling can be somewhat related to diet, this time of day is also a natural resting phase that occurs in our circadian rhytym. It can often be hard to push through this period and you may find your productivity massively dips during this time. So why try and power through? Why not just schedule in a 20 minute power nap? I know this can be difficult with the demands of full time work, but you could try and find a dark, quiet room to nap in during part of your lunch break, or even have a nap in your car (I’ve done this before on many occasions). It is suprisingy how rejuvenated this 20 minute nap can make you feel and can really boost your productivity for the rest of the afternoon. Another natural resting period during our sleep/wake cycle occurs from around 5-7pm. So this can be another important point in the day to try and schedule in a power nap, particularly if you’re training that evening. This nap could be on the train home from work or as soon as you get in the house. I’ve found in the past that this can massively improve my perfromance in training that evening, so why not give it a go!

Adopting a polyphasic approach (sleeping mulitple times during the day) to sleep, alligns our sleeping patterns with our natural circadian rythym and some of the reported benefits include having more time in the day (due to sleeping less during the night, e.g. 6-7 hours, as opposed to 8-9 hours), elevated mood, improved performance (both at work and in training) and even living longer!

Sleep Quality

Like most things a ‘good sleep’ is determined by quality as well as quantity. For example, you are probably better off getting 4-5 hours of high quality sleep, rather than 6-7 hours of disturbed or broken sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation the following criteria are key determinants of ‘good quality’ sleep:

  • Sleeping more time while in bed (at least 85 percent of the total time)
  • Falling asleep in 30 minutes or less
  • Waking up no more than once per night; and
  • Being awake for 20 minutes or less after initially falling asleep.

If you are finding it difficult to meet some, or all of these criteria it is worth considering whether there may be any stressors present in your day to day life that may be impacting on your sleep quality.  I have always found that for me poor quality sleep is linked to feeling stressed. Poor sleep and stress often go hand in hand. Therefore, the best way to improve sleep quality may be to identify and attempt to remove the presence/impact of these stressors. However, this can sometimes be difficult or take a long period of time to achieve. Engaging in healthy sleep habits (sleep hygiene) can be another way to improve sleep quality.

Promoting Good Sleep Hygiene

I’ve found that following a list of things to do or avoid just before bed (below) can help prepare the mind and body for sleep, and increase the likelihood of you getting a good quality sleep:Image result for poor sleep hygiene

  • Ensure you have a dark, comfortable sleep environment
  • Engage in a low-stimulus activity (e.g. reading a book)
  • Reduce exposure to ‘blue-light’ (e.g. looking at a phone screen)
  • Have a warm shower
  • Use your bedroom (or bed if this is not possible) solely for sleeping (not work!), to increase the  association between being in your bedroom (or bed) and going to sleep
  • Keep a diary or notepad close to your bed to jot down any nagging thoughts (to avoid you ruminating on these thoughts when trying to sleep)
  • Make a to do list
  • Try to avoid eating fatty foods (e.g. chocolate) or foods high in protein (e.g chicken) Image result for coffee and sleeplate at night
  • Try to avoid drinking alcohol or drinks high in caffeine (e.g. coffee or energy drinks) at night (I normally try to give myself a 4pm cut off for caffeine consumption, as the half-life of caffeine is approximately 5-6 hours)
  • Avoid high intensity exercise late at night
  • Get out of bed if sleep does not naturally come

 

 

Summary

In summary, sleep is vitally important due to it’s restorative and consolidatory functions (particularly as triathletes). Sleep is also a very individual and complex phenomenom, and therefore the more aware you are of your own natural sleep cycle the more you will be able to adapt your sleep schedule to ensure you feel rested and alert throughout the day. A ‘good nights sleep’ is determined by both the quality and duration of sleep. If we are not getting enough sleep and/or our sleep is poor in quality it can have a significant impact on both out physical and mental functioning. Finally we can improve our sleep quality by adopting healthy sleep habits, promoting good sleep hygiene.

 

 

 

2017: A Time for Change?

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I realise it’s been quite a while since my last post, so apologies for this. Things have been very busy of late and with starting a new job, training hard over the winter and applying for Doctorate courses time has been very hard to come by!

New Year, new me?

So, 2016 has come and gone in flash. Many of you will have reflected on the season gone by and generated goals and targets for the season to come. Some of you may have even have made new years resolutions in an effort to motivate yourself for training and racing in the year ahead.

Despite positive intentions and commitment, these new years resolutions can often be very difficult to keep. Those of you that have made new years resolutions may have found motivation to stick these is waning or has gone altogether! If this is you, don’t worry, you’re not alone, many find new years resolutions hard to keep:

Out of the 32% of the population that make new years resolutions, 43% break these within the first month, and 86% within the first year! (1)

So why is this? What are the reasons new years resolutions so often fail? And what can we do make effective and sustained positive change?

Well, there are numerous reasons why new years resolutions fail, but in this post, I will be focusing on some of the key ones, including:

  • Poor goal setting
  • Lack of motivation
  • Goal misalignment

But firstly, why do goals, targets and plans for change have to be made at the start of a new year?! You have the potential to make positive, meaningful change at any point, so why wait until the new year!

SMART Goal Setting

Poor goal setting is one of the biggest reason that planned change is unsuccessful and is one of the easiest things to get right if you are SMART about it.

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Ensuring you are SMART with your goal setting significantly increases the chances of achieving your goals!

Here are two examples of goals that a triathlete might set, which do you think is more likely to be successfully followed?

Example 1: I want to swim more often

Example 2: I want to swim 2500m, 3 times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday for 1 hour from 7-8pm at (insert local pool name here) swimming pool.

Motivation

Another key determinant of successful change is motivation. Motivation can be defined as a want or desire to direct goal-oriented behaviour (2).

Seems plausible right?

Well, actually motivation is more than this, it is also determined by an individuals confidence to initiate and sustain change.

Therefore, when generating goals it is important to have both a want or desire to make a change and also have the confidence to implement and sustain this change. Without these two crucial elements, motivation to make goal-oriented change/behaviour may not be sufficient to initiate and sustain this change.

‘Effort Justification’

We can often feel that the goals we value most highly are the ones which require the most effort to achieve. As we have put a considerable amount of effort into achieving these goals we may try to convince ourselves that making this effort was enjoyable and that we didn’t really have to put that much effort in! However, putting in the effort does not necessarily make this effort worthwhile.

This ‘effort justification’ (3) may be used as a method of reducing cognitive dissonance (a conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistencies between a person’s beliefs and their actions). Therefore, when designing goals it’s important that you are putting the effort in in the right places, for example, something that holds particular importance and meaning to you.

Re-evaluating your Goals

The decision to re-evaluate your goal/s may be very difficult and it’s important that you don’t consider goal re-evaluation as a failure to achieve your original goal. Goals constantly need to be refreshed and redefined to reflect progress and change in your life. Here are some of the signs that your goals might need re-evaluating.

  • You’re experiencing anxiety, depression, hopelessness, or extreme amounts of stress as a result of your goal
  • You’ve stopped making progress, or have lost interest in or the desire to achieve your goal
  • The drawbacks of pursuing your goal outweigh the benefits of achieving it
  • The conditions, payoffs, or circumstances of this goal have change

Conclusion

So to conclude, we all have the capacity to make meaningful and positive change, whether that be in your life as a triathlete, or in any aspect of your life in general. Setting goals can be a great way to initiative and sustain change behaviour, so remember next time you set a goal, be SMART, be motivated, make sure you are putting the effort into something that holds a particular importance to you (no matter how small or trivial this may seem) and don’t be afraid to re-evaulate, re-assess and redefine your goals.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek (Barrack Obama)”

*Disclaimer – I am not a qualified psychologist, so am not an expert on these topics. However I am currently working as an assistant psychologist and have a bachelors degree and Masters in Psychology, and therefore have some knowledge and experience of mental health issues.

  1. Bupa/ComRes, November 2015
  2. Kleinginna, P., Jr., & Kleinginna A. (1981a). A categorized list of motivation definitions, with suggestions for a consensual definition. Motivation and Emotion, 5, 263-291.
  3. Festinger, L. (1959). Some attitudinal consequences of forced decisions. Acta Psychologica, 15, 389-390.

Triathlon and Mental Health: Getting the Balance Right

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Given that it was World Mental Health Day last week I thought it was only fair to give the topic of triathlon and mental health a bit of attention. The benefits of triathlon for good mental health have been widely publicised over the last week and rightly so. Benefits include the release of endorphin’s that can boost our mood, a reduction in stress levels, increased sociability through involvement with a club or team and increased serotonin levels from being outdoors (n.b. this is benefit is very rarely realised). However, it has frustrated me slightly that media focus on the potential negative consequences of elite sport on our mental health has received relatively little attention. Everybody has mental health and therefore everybody has the potential to be affected by mental health issues.

Struggling in Silence

There appears to be an assumption that elite athletes have good mental health, as how else what they would be able to train and perform at such a high level? However, in recent years many high profile sportspeople have come out and openly discussed their struggles with mental health issues (e.g. Ian Thorpe, Natasha Danvers). Despite athletes openly discussing their struggles, there is still a tendency for mental health issues to go unrecognised and many continue to suffer in silence. There appears to be an expectation that those involved in elite sport can handle things and therefore they don’t always get the help and support they require to tackle mental health issues.

Risk Factors

Individuals experiencing mental health issues can be particularly hard to identify in individual sports such as triathlon, and there are a number of inherent risk factors associated with individual sports, particularly at an elite level. Firstly, elite triathletes are required to invest large amounts of time and energy into training which can result in a loss of personal autonomy and disempowerment (1). The elite-sport environment can also result in ‘identity-foreclosure’ leaving athletes few other avenues through which to shape and reflect personality (1). High athletic identity has been linked to psychological distress when this function of identity is removed, and to overtraining and athlete burnout (1). Over training can result in self-isolating behaviours, whereby the athletes withdraws from social interactions in order to train and is strongly correlated with affective disorders such as major depressive disorder (2). Self-isolating behaviour is something that have struggled with in the past but have learnt to and continue to manage.

It also appears that athletes competing in high-intensity sports are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder compared to the general population, with prevalence rates of 17.2% for males and 32% for females (3) Other studies have reported eating disorders in women athletes to be as high as 60% (4) Compounding this, the injury experience of an elite athlete has been likened to the grief process observed following bereavement, with an estimated 10–20% of athletes warranting clinical intervention, with suicide a cause of concern (5) A dose–response relationship exists between physical activity and the likelihood of injury; again, with elite athletes at most risk.

So to conclude, there are both positive and negative mental health outcomes of triathlon and like with most things it’s about managing your mind and body to get the balance right.

Strategies to maintain good mental health

Here are a few strategies that I try to use (N.B. This is not an exhaustive list and you might find that some of these work and some don’t, it’s about finding what works for you!) :

Mindfulness – focus on the here and now. I always try and schedule a run or bike every week where I utilise all of my senses to tune into my surroundings and bodily sensations (e.g. heartbeat, breathing, foot striking the floor during a run). I try to avoid getting bogged down in the stats during this session and instead just go on how I feel, and what feels comfortable. Obviously, there will be sessions were a focus on heart rate, power, cadence and timings etc are essential, but it’s good to give yourself a break from the numbers, make space in your training schedule for a run/cycle where you just appreciate triathlon for what it is and you should find that your both your mental health and appetite for the sport will benefit no end.

Finding the right balance – for some of you triathlon may be an important part of your life and may define who are you are, but there is more to life than triathlon. To maintain positive mental health it is important that we pursue other interests and make time for those that important in our lives (friends and family). It can be hard to make time for this alongside training (and work!) but I always try and have at least one day a week where I make an extra effort to meet up or chat with family and friends, as social support and social interaction are one of the most important factors in predicting physical health and well-being. The isolation that can arise as a result of participating in an individual sport, particularly for elite triathletes, makes this time doubly important.

Acceptance and resilience – accept that things will not always go well, this is life! We will all experience failure at some point in our triathlon lives, but it’s about how you respond to these setbacks that really define who you are as a triathlete. A demanding sport such as triathlon has a tendency to attract those who are highly competitive and display perfectionist traits. These characteristics can make it difficult to for us to recognise our progress and achievements, and instead lead to focus on what went wrong or what we could have done better. High levels of self-criticism and blame can increase the likelihood of low mood and the onset of depression.

Positive reinforcement – No matter how small or insignificant, it is good to reward progress. Next time you smash out a big session or achieve a new PB why not treat yourself? You’ve earned it!

*Disclaimer – I am not a qualified psychologist, so am not an expert on these topics. However I am currently working as an assistant psychologist and have a bachelors degree and Masters in Psychology, and therefore have some knowledge and experience of mental health issues.

2016 Season Review


Season Summary

  • BUCS Duathlon – 5th
  • British Elite Duathlon Championships – 20th
  • BUCS Sprint Triathlon – 19th
  • BUCS Olympic Distance Triathlon – 8th
  • Cardiff Olympic Distance Triathlon – 2nd
  • Blenheim Sprint Distance Triathlon (Elite) – 20th
  • London Olympic Distance Triathlon (Elite) – 13th
  • Castle Howard Olympic Distance Triathlon – 3rd
  • Swiss Pro League – Lausanne – 5th
  • Chateau de Chantilly Olympic Distance Triathlon – 4th
  • The Gauntlet at Hever Castle – 8th
Season Review

2016 was a very exciting year, lots of racing, new experiences and some very pleasing results. Making the step up to elite level racing I knew my swim had to improve and this was my main focus in pre-season training, bashing out length upon length in the pool.

My main highlights were finishing 12th in the Elite race at London, where my swim was a massive 2 minutes faster than last year, 3rd at Castle Howard, finally cracking the top 10 at BUCS Olympic, having the fastest swim split of the day at Chateau de Chantilly, (just about) finishing my first half iron distance race on a brutal hilly course at Hever Castle and racing against Alistair Brownlee at Blenheim!

However, there were also some lows along the way, including battling recurrent early season running niggles, having an absolute shocker in transition at Chateau De Chantilly and having to recover after taking a wrong turn on the bike at Hever Castle adding in a monster hill (Official 100 climbs no.19 ‘The Wall’) and 12 minutes to my bike split.

Moving up to elite level racing also proved to be a steep learning curve, where the swim and transitions take on a whole new level of importance. After taking a few batterings in the swim early season, I quickly became accustomed to taking right hooks and kicks to the face and learnt the art of just sticking with it in the first few hundred meters before the pace settled down.

I have been lucky enough to have had some great support throughout the season and would like to thank Pedalcover, 32Gi, Blueseventy, The University of Birmingham Triathlon Team and friends and family for their ongoing support.

Next year I’m planning on moving to longer distance racing (mainly half ironman distance) as I feel I’m more suited to the longer stuff (we’ll see!). Either way I’m looking forward to a new challenge and a different kind of racing!

Welcome

Thanks for taking the time to check out my page! These days it seems every endurance athlete is either blogging or is thinking about giving it a shot. I’ve been toying with the idea for a while and thought it was high time I gave it a go.

You might be thinking, but why should I read your blog? Is the world of elite triathlon really that interesting? Will this be just another pretentious athlete log? After an initial flurry of posts will this page just peter out and be lost in the infinite void of the worldwide web? Was Bran the Builder correct to construct the Wall, thus dividing First Men based on an arbitrary division of Wildling/Northman?

As yet I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to answer all these questions over time. What I can say is that I want this blog to different. Yes I’ll keep you updated on my racing through obligatory race reports but I want this to be more than that. I want to discuss an eclectic mix of subjects and topics, things that are sometimes ignored or forgotten (but are deserving of attention), the skipped sessions, the DNFs, the physical and mental turmoil and whether it’s really all worth it (I hope to prove to you that it is!). I won’t bore you by outlining the minutiae of daily training and risk slipping into the boring and monotonous. I plan to discuss topics that are pertinent to me, using my knowledge of psychology to explore things such as the “mind-body connection”, mindfulness and “coping” strategies, and how these relate to triathlon. However, I don’t want to say to much at this stage and give you an unrealistic impression of what’s to come, I want to see where my triathlon journey takes me, the ups and downs along the way, the lessons learnt, and explore how these experiences define me as a triathlete. I’ll begin with a quickfire season review.