Don’t let sleep deprivation become a habit, even if circumstances are out of your control
Lead photo from Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Images
Sleep. It’s probably the single most important thing that influences recovery, sustainability, and performance yet it’s rarely emphasized and given importance. I, myself, thought I had my sleep game locked in.
I was never the type who enjoyed nights out nor did I party much growing up. In fact, during busy stretches in college, I steered clear of any social life to get my work done and then paired it with quality sleep; this was the case even if others pulled all-nighters when deadlines approached.
I carried this habit even as I got into triathlon. Sleep was king, and a midday nap was as important as the workout itself. However, after getting a sleep tracker, I realized there was still more to be desired when it came to getting my Zs in. Small things such as de-stressing before bedtime, avoiding caffeine past a certain hour, and even taking a few important supplements helped me level up my sleep game.
Sleep was king, and a midday nap was as important as the workout itself. However, after getting a sleep tracker, I realized there was still more to be desired when it came to getting my Zs in
But the past couple months changed a lot. We were blessed with a healthy baby boy who needed our time, attention, and care 24/7. This meant I could no longer follow my usual bedtime and sleep routine. My sleep stretches were short and shallow; I was always (albeit willingly) at the mercy of the mood and desires of the baby. Given these circumstances, here are a few observations I have about sleep deprivation.
A night of good sleep isn’t enough
During the first few days postpartum, I was lucky to get four hours of sleep. The time-consuming schedule of taking care of a newborn, partnered with the excitement of having a new member of the family, really took its toll on the number of hours I get to doze off. I thought that once we got home from the hospital, my sleep would normalize and I’d be back to my usual self. Boy was I wrong; of the five days I barely slept, it took me close to a week before I was able to recover. This was despite the constant napping and extra hours I’d get at night. Imagine if the stretches of sleeplessness were extended beyond five days. That said, once your lack of sleep becomes a habit, you would definitely get used to it to some extent, but the physiological and even psychological effects should not be ignored.
Sleep deprivation has a huge toll on performance
There have been claims pointing out that a bad night’s sleep (given you have a good “sleep bank” prior to that) doesn’t really affect performance much. This is something to remember if you don’t get to sleep the night before the race; you have nothing to worry about really. However, if you already lack sleep to begin with, a bad night’s sleep can wreak havoc.
After a lack of sleep for a few days, my numbers took a nosedive. I saw close to a 10 percent decrease in power and a significantly elevated heart rate
This is something I felt as I was getting back into my training regimen while taking care of a newborn. Being a data-driven athlete, I always took notes in terms of metrics and performance. Prior to this stretch, my numbers were super consistent. However, after a lack of sleep for a few days, my numbers took a nosedive. I saw close to a 10 percent decrease in power and a significantly elevated heart rate.
It was tempting to just hammer out and aim for the previous targets but wisdom and experience told me to be smarter about it. I dialed back my target numbers and cut back on the volume. Much like a pen that doesn’t have any ink, it’s useless to try and keep on writing even if nothing comes out.
Mental toughness also takes a hit
It might seem that sleep only affects the physical side of things (e.g., how fast you can go and how much work you can do). But I found that mental fortitude also becomes severely affected. Some workouts are tougher than most and this is normal. In fact, these tough sessions help you become a better athlete (physically and mentally).
However, during my period of sleep deprivation, I found myself giving up more than usual. The capacity to do harder work gets severely compromised. Not only did my legs not cooperate, my mind also kept the handbrake on—perhaps preventing me from doing more damage. This is of course demotivating as an athlete and lets you spiral into a deeper emotional pit. This is why having an objective mindset, maybe with the aid of a competent coach, is important and essential.
It’s easy to fall into despair when we realize we don’t have enough time to balance work, family, sleep, and training. However, remember that every problem has a solution
Sleep is just one part of the equation
It’s easy to fall into despair when we realize we don’t have enough time to balance work, family, sleep, and training. However, remember that every problem has a solution. Given that we know we have limited resources, especially time, available to us, we need to budget intelligently. People with demanding work and family lives are advised to try and offload some of the work needed to be done. You can do this by hiring help, asking family for cooperation and support, and even making sure you don’t put too much on your plate at any given time.
Furthermore, racing goals can be adjusted, especially during difficult stretches. Shifting to a shorter distance, adjusting target times and goals, and even racing less can be options. However, as a coach, one thing I want to emphasize is that consistency is king. Getting work done regularly, even if shorter than intended, is more important than putting in huge training days occasionally. This is the recipe for success in the long run.
Lastly, get help from a knowledgeable coach or companion who’s been through similar stretches and came out successfully. We are never alone in our struggles so surround yourself with the right people.