So our science around the miserable things that happen to our bodies without enough sleep is pretty good. I will proceed as I often do by not actually providing the reviews that I am thinking of, but rather shall simply make passing references to “studies which have shown…”. We can blame this either on the laziness, or on my general need to make things up to prove my own points. However, in the age old tradition of armchair science I shall present personal anecdotes to prove my point.
I recently went down to the states to train with a friend of mine and take a well needed break from work. The issue ended up being one of sleep. Somehow Sunday night I ended up getting to bed later than expected, so by the time that I actually did fall asleep I was running short on my usual start to the week. Monday night I managed to do this again, a late night before an early rush to the gym. So it was little surprise when half way through the day I tangibly felt my immune system shut down. I cursed under my breath and headed to get more fluids. A hot yoga class and an attempt at napping didn’t make up for the two nights of four hours of sleep. By the time I did get to bed that night I was getting stressed about not sleeping enough and managed to repeat the same stupid cycle of not being able to fall asleep. This situation in no way got any better by the time I headed to the airport on Thursday afternoon. I was sick.
Or was I.
See that’s the question I wonder at. Every extra hour of sleep I got left me with less sinus issues and feeling better that weekend. Sure I would still find myself coughing a bit by the evenings on the week following, but as soon as I nailed down another 7-9hrs of sleep I would wake up feeling refreshed and largely free of illness. So here we are, tuesday evening. I managed to not sleep last night once again and likely only got four hours sleep. This evening I am tired, I am coughing every now and then. So what did I do this afternoon? I finally got around to blacking out my room completely to remove all ambient light. Tonight I don’t intend to let the long summer days in Calgary keep me awake. Tomorrow will likely see me almost fully recovered. By the end of the week when I head off to do some high altitude alpine in the Icefield Parkway I am hoping to be back at the top of my game. Yet that took four days for someone who never gets sick to go from fully healthy to being a miserable excuse for a human being, and then a week of sleep to return to healthy.
So item one is this: sleep. It keeps you healthy. It keeps you sane.
The next item of note would be Adrenal Fatigue 3.0, a retreat that I ran in Mexico a few weeks ago. Both of the guys who went through the fifty hours of training over the course of the six days suffered mild insomnia, stomach issues, extreme fatigue, and were beaten to the ground by the end of the week. For the next week neither of them did much other than lay low, eat bacon, sleep, and avoid serious training. Yet then something interesting happened. When their bodies were done with the state of induced hyper-recovery, they crushed things. Moves that had seemed months away were crushed out easily the following week with apparently no effort. PRs were achieved. Now this was of course an extreme case of both training and the resulting need for recovery, however the results need to be looked at.
Item two: recovery must be allotted based on training load for us to reap the benefits.
So there is a balance that needs to be sought after by both coaches and athletes in finding that point of how hard to push and for how long. However where that line is is often something that I think we skew. I wrote this while the boys were napping one day during that week in Mexico:
“It is an amazing thing to watch one’s students excel; when the last of the blocks crumble and they grasp it. The bodies begin to obey once they have been broken away from the limitations of what the mind has been telling them that it is supposed to be able to withstand. The mind and its petty limitations must be broken, it must be reshaped to know that anything is possible. This is a rather pretty crucible, a gorgeous descent into madness. It has taken four days of training for things to start to really come together. One day of rest to recover for a breath and they we plunge back into it. The difficulty increasing yet again. We just broke 34hrs of training this morning, with another 4-6 yet this afternoon. Yet the improvements in the last few hours have been breath taking. The body begins to get desperate, there is no break from the madness.
Adaptation is forced as the mind gives in; it cedes defeat: impossible is nothing. The soul is traded for perfection.
Those who believe this can not work have never been a part of it, the condensed beating down of the mind’s limitations of what the body can do.”
I am not suggesting people over-train all the time. However I find myself mulling on the strange duality of being pushed beyond our limits and then, with the appropriate level of recovery and sleep watch plateaus crushed by new visions of what is possible.