You've just mixed and drank your post-workout shake and are on your way home to prepare your next meal. You think to yourself, "I am way ahead of the game by jumping on this recovery bandwagon!" You've had your post-workout meal, you are about to eat your next meal full of protein and nutrients that your body needs, and you know you're making gains you've never quite been able to achieve. This would never be able to happen without an adequate amount of rest. That's right, sleep is the most important aspect of the recovery process, and is often overlooked. You can time your meals to the T, drink all the protein shakes you want, spend countless hours in the gym grinding it out and still never make any improvements without a full 8 hours of sleep each night.
Believe it or not, according to the 2002 Sleep in America Poll, today Americans average 6.9 hours of sleep on weeknights and 7.5 hours of sleep per night on weekends. Think back to your college days. Do you remember nights where you stayed up all night studying for an exam, or worse, stayed out partying too late when you had to wake up early in the morning for class? On most occasions you probably had a rough time staying awake the next day. Most college kids pull “all-nighters" at least one night out of the week. They try consuming massive amounts of caffeine or any other herbal supplements, like Ginkgo Biloba, that they believe will help them to stay focused and awake throughout the night in order to prepare for a final exam the next morning. This seems counterproductive when we don't even need a study to know that the more sleep you get, the more focused and awake you are the next day as well as your increased ability to regurgitate facts and information, especially when put into mentally stimulating situations.
Aside from alleviating feelings of fatigue, there are many other reasons that we need quality sleep. For one, quality sleep improves immune function. Ever heard the saying, "burning the candle at both ends"? What this means is that you are doing too much work without enough rest. Sleep deprivation makes you more susceptible to colds and infections. If you are sick, you should not be working out; your body obviously needs rest if it can't even fight off cold/flu bugs. The second reason to get your rest is that short-term memories are moved to long-term memory storage during deep sleep, or REM sleep (rapid eye movement). The REM stage of sleep is also the stage where dreaming occurs. In this stage the brain becomes more active and the heart rate increases. But, the single most important reason why we need quality sleep is Growth and Restoration. That's right, muscle recovery! Throughout the night our body secretes hormones, among those is Human Growth Hormone (aka GH). GH is a natural and powerful anabolic hormone produced by the pituitary gland. By not getting enough sleep you are potentially diminishing the amount of GH produced thereby inhibiting your muscle development because, as we all know, GH may promote increased muscle size and may inhibit fat storage. Therefore, the more sleep you get, the faster your muscles will heal and recover from exercise and the faster you will see your gains. For these reasons it is important to understand and appreciate the importance of a quality night's rest. Plan your schedule (work, meals, and training) to ensure at least 8 hours of sleep each night. Studies have shown that exercising too close to your bedtime will inhibit your ability to fall asleep. Make sure you are allowing 4-5 hours post-workout before you go to bed to ensure you will be able to fall asleep quickly.
Sleep deprivation along with exercise will probably lead to over-training. Symptoms of over-training are: headaches, muscle soreness/tenderness lasting longer than 48 hours, fatigue, cold/flu symptoms, depression, increased temperature, decreased appetite, difficulty sleeping, lack of energy, lack of motivation, and loss of body weight. If you are suffering from any of these symptoms it is likely your body would benefit from taking a week off for relaxation and rehabilitation. Ensuring adequate sleep will help to avoid these symptoms.
How much sleep do we need? According to the National Sleep Foundation, there is no "magic number". The amount of sleep we need is completely per individual. Just like any other aspect of your life, everybody is different and their needs are no exception. The National Sleep Foundation also states that there are two different factors that also affect the amount of time a person needs to sleep: a person's basal sleep need (amount of sleep our bodies need for optimal performance) and sleep debt (accumulated sleep that is lost for various reasons). Simplified, this is similar to the fact that your body needs a certain amount of calories consumed per day to maintain itself. If you do not consume enough calories you will have a calorie deficit. Your body needs a certain amount of sleep per night on a regular basis for optimal performance. If you do not meet this number, you will have a sleep debt. Take for example a credit card. You have a credit card with a $3,000 limit. You spend $500 and now have a debt of $500 that you owe to the credit card company. You can spend more money within the $3000 limit, but without you paying the $500 back you will still have that debt weighing on you. And by spending more money all you are doing is increasing that debt. You will not break even until you have repaid your debt and stopped spending money. Your body is the same, if you have three days in a row where you reach your basal sleep need, but you still have a previous debt, you will still feel tired until this debt is "paid-off". The good news is that it is possible to "pay-off" your sleep debt accumulation, just make sure you do it in a timely manner so as you do not suffer any consequences. On the other hand, you cannot get ahead on your sleep, unlike a credit card where you can make a higher payment and have an excess balance on your account; you cannot sleep more and create a surplus. Thus, it is essential to get the right amount of sleep each night for optimal muscle growth.
For an energy boost, try taking a nap or two throughout the day. Just be sure to keep it at a minimum of 30 minutes and a max of an hour and half. Only use this as a last resort, as a full-night's sleep is far more important than a little cat nap.