These days it seems like the biohackers of the world are bragging about their minimal sleep patterns, running off 5 hours or whatever and feeling fantastic. One may argue, “Well, most aren’t endurance athletes so they can get away with less sleep.” But au contraire. I know a handful of triathletes who operate on this minimal sleep cycle and seemingly do just fine. If they can do it, great. But I just don't get it. And interestingly, I listen to the Bulletproof Executive often and while Dave Asprey claims to not need much sleep because he has "hacked his sleep" so that he can get just as quality in less time, but I'm skeptical. Furthermore, when he asks his guests for their top-3 tips to kick more ass in life, I always hear people saying quality sleep!
Sleep is golden, especially when more and more research and even things like Traditional Chinese Medicine is telling us the value of sleep for optimal functioning (see comments on gallbladder below), athlete or not.
Anyway, I will never be a person who can get away with minimal sleep. But sometimes you need a reality check to make sure, right? I got that recently. A couple weeks ago going into the weekend, I had two terrible nights of sleep, which is rather rare for me these days, and it hit me hard.
Let me back up a bit. I'm no stranger to those 1 a.m.-4 a.m. wake-ups and inability to fall back asleep. In a previous life, like prior to 2009, I used to have consistent bouts of insomnia but got that under control a couple ways: 1) learning to be in control of the mind (aka know how to turn it off), and 2) getting my sh*t together in life -- and by that I'm not trying to be snarky, I'm serious. Back then there were a lot of "unknown" variables in my life that I would let stress me out unnecessarily. Once I kinda got a hold on things and felt more at peace in my life situation, yup, sleep improved. I also mention the idea of mind control -- that is huge. When the brain turns on at 2 a.m., do you have control to turn it back off? This is a tough one to master, and sometimes I can do it, but not always.
Why do we wake up at those god-awful hours? First off, let me say, I use "insomnia" loosely, as I've never been clinically diagnosed insomniac nor was it/is it chronically detrimental. Like most people, I just get those annoying early wake-ups every so often, but nothing crazy. So I’m not trying to provide medical advice for insomniacs; although, I still think some stuff I’m saying is applicable if you think you’re in the category.
Insomnia or just random wake-ups, there is a lot that can be going on in the mind and body that cause us to wake up at random hours -- it's the body's cry for help if you will. Enter: The Chinese Meridian Clock. If you always wake up at the same time (which I don't) you might want to check out this graphic, which associates a specific organ and element to a specific time day/night:
Don't take this too literally. The organ names are loosely translated, so waking at 2 a.m. doesn't mean your liver is failing or something extreme. It's kinda complicated, and I don't even think I fully get it so I won't attempt to explain. I do know emotional state and the associated element play a role. I love TCM. I'll link to more blogs at the end for further reading.
Why would you be waking up early? Here are just several possibilities whether you believe in the Meridian Clock or not:
-Gut and digestive issues. Likely related to diet, above, or if it's gotten to the point of poor gut health.
-Caffeine later than 3 p.m. Studies show you're screwed with sleep if you drink caffeine later than 3. Not shocking.
-Poor diet. Either too much food too close to bed, too little food overall in the day (you wake up starving), the wrong food for you (i.e. gluten, too much sugar, dairy, etc).
-Alcohol*. A good drink (or 5) can knock you yet, yes, but does it equate to your best sleep? Heck no.
-Overtrained, fatigue, or injury. Just because you're tired doesn't give you a golden ticket to blissful sleep. Ever heard of post-Ironman insomnia? I rest my case. If you're injured your body is out of whack and that can lead to painful nights of sleep. Been there.
-Hormonal imbalance. This is a tangled messy web of potential issues.
-Emotions. Stress, grief, worry, fear, anxiety, etc.... Hm, some of these are associated with elements occurring in the night hours on the Chinese Meridian Clock.... hmmm... Seriously though.
*Interestingly, I know for me on those nights where I've drank too much (ya, it's happened), that I will, like clockwork, wake up around 3 a.m. Looks like that's my liver being pissed off.
Anyway, back to my recent episode of shitty sleep. It was a Thursday night/Friday morning when it started. It wasn't workout-related; I was on a recovery week and feeling ok. This time I woke up fully alert and excited to go work after maybe 6 hours. Here's the difference: In the past I'd always wake up worried or stressed about something, or from too much exercise (see above). But, this time the ideas were flowing and my brain was like, "Ohhh yaaaa let's do that… fun!" Instead of fighting it this time and working to shut the brain off, I went with it. After a couple hours of working, it got light enough outside for me to head out for an amazing sunrise run with parts of it on the beach/sand at low tide. Pure bliss, and a mellow effort. Nothing that would be too fatiguing in my book.
Friday night we had a mellow family dinner party, but that still meant a late night out and I wasn't in bed until after 11 p.m. Ouch. I heard an expert on a podcast saying how important it is to be in bed before 11, as that's when the gallbladder gets to work to do a self-cleansing process (which is verified on that Meridian Clock if you look at the gallbladder's time). So, if we go to sleep after 11, that the automatic self-cleaning is inhibited, and we are, thus, not functioning at our best. Get to sleep early kiddos!
I never sleep later than 6:30, usually up by 5:30-6:15 a.m. on most days, so there I was Saturday morning wide awake after just ~6hrs again, and despite it being a recovery week, I was total trash. I am a 7-8+ hour sleeper dang it! In 48 hours I had gone from feeling on track with recovery week to feeling worse than during a hard training week. Brain barely functioning. Physically drained. Nothing else in my life was out of the ordinary to contribute to this feeling other than the lack of sleep. HRV = 69. Any time my HRV is below 70, I know I'm no good. I took it easy in the morning, then got in an easy and slow 3k swim midday which actually felt refreshing especially since I avoided intensity, but from there I totally skipped my run and didn't even second-guess that decision. Instead? I read -- book of choice was Way of the Seal, as I'll be doing a podcast with the author, Mark Divine, soon -- then coached a client through an LTHR run test.
Saturday night was back to good sleep (8+ hours, I was determined!), and by Sunday I was golden. HRV back into the 80s, and ready to go for it on a long brick workout with John, my mom and Joshua. It was a rather tough ride on what happened to be one of the hottest (80s) and windiest days of the year so far -- that is until this past weekend when temps easily got into the 90s – then a fun easy T run. HRV post-workout was standard 60s, no surprise. But I slept well again Sunday night and low and behold, HRV on Monday was great, back in the 80s, even after the 4-hour training day prior.
|Peaceful shut eye.
A note on my personal HRV observations:
I use SweetBeat, first off. I rarely average in the 90s unless I am 100% rested and off training in a rather extreme sense (like at least 3-4 days totally off or something). Usually the highest I'll see on a good day is 89 average. On a regular/semi-hard training week, I see a lot in the 70s, and I do my best not to dip below 70, but if/when it does I am willing to adjust the schedule and take a rest day or super easy day. Lucho is cool with all that, and I think he appreciates how in tune I am with that stuff. He told me he doesn't think I'm a slacker if I do make an executive decision for a day off or easy workout instead; whew ;)
Sleep. I need it.
So these biohackers or minimal sleepers who are claiming that they can kill it on just a handful of hours of sleep... I can't help but wonder if that's just a cop out for their own insomnia issues and they really would be better off with more zzz's... or if it's legit biohacking? I'm inclined to call BS!!
More on good sleep, and why we want it:
-How much is enough? Here's what I read:
a) You need more if: you fall asleep as soon literally as you hit the pillow and still need an alarm to wake up (and this is normal) then you're likely sleep deprived.
b) You are good if: you get to bed and fall asleep within a reasonable time (i.e. you don't just konk out within 30sec), and you don't need an alarm to wake up on time then you are generally good on sleep.
-Actual hours? Studies show 7-9 hours of sleep for adults is ideal. How many of you get that, show of hands?!
-Better performance. This is across all aspects of life: athletics/sport (see article below), work, socially, mentally, productivity, sharpness, etc. One of the things I hate most about lack of sleep -- feeling like I'm drunk and not in control of my movements, mind and functioning.
-Growth hormone is released in abundance during sleep. So if you're an athlete and looking to recover, get stronger and kick more ass in your sport, then freakin sleep all you can! Naps included!
-Cleansing processes in the mind and body occur during sleep. I mentioned the gallbladder. That's just one example!
-Hormones. I mentioned how GH is released. Well on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you get consistently poor sleep there is no doubt that you're risking hormonal imbalances.
-Appearance. Good sleep = better complexion, healthy-looking skin, better overall appearance. Bottom line: look your sexiest with sleep!
-Ward off sickness. Sleep deprivation weakens immune system further, and you're vulnerable to all the crap out there. Endurance exercise makes you vulnerable too, so if you can increase your chances of NOT getting sick, do what's in your control: sleep!
Last but not least:
Look, I'm no crazy biohacker with a bedroom that's set up like a science lab, but I do some things to ensure I get the most from my sleeping hours.
Master good sleep:
-Exercise can help you sleep better (see link below). But there's a point of diminishing returns... ahem you endurance junkies. It's also not ideal to exercise close to bedtime unfortunately.
-Turn off your devices. No phones, no computers/iPads, no TV, no bright lights, etc, in the bedroom before bed -- in fact not computers/devices for at least 1hour before bed is said to be ideal, but that's tough I know, because we all check Twitter before bed ;) Looking into devices and LCD lights screws up sleep right away in terms of melatonin production and so on.
-Light. The darker the room when you get into bed, the better.
-Get a sleep-tracking app. I like Sleep Cycle, and it's super cheap. Just make sure to put your phone on Airplane Mode during nighttime to avoid radiation exposure via the phone.
-Supplements. If you are having trouble sleeping, then certain supplements can help (see link below). I LOVE my Natural Calm Magnesium powder mixed in water before bed, it is so soothing. Other than that, I heard fat before bed can be helpful. I take my fish oil and Vitamin D closer to bed does that count?
-Nutrition. If you have an imbalance in nutrition, minerals, etc, sleep suffers. Get this ish figured out. It's an easy one that you're in control of.
How an extra hour can help athletes:
Exercise's benefits to good sleep:
Supplements for better sleep:
Understanding the Chinese Meridian Clock and Insomnia: