Dr Meeta Singh is a sleep guru who coaches pro athletes to sleep their way to superior performance – most recently playing a key role in helping the Washington Nationals win the World Series. Here she shares some simple insights that will help exercise enthusiasts sleep their way to optimal athletic performance.
Read on and you’ll discover:
- How sleep and our biological circadian rhythms influence athletic performance
- Tips for maximizing the benefits of exercise while balancing the need to recover
- The simple technique that helps you identify your own personal sleep needs
- Seven expert tips that help athletes sleep smarter
Fit Planet: You talk about coaching the ‘sleep muscle’. Is this a new concept, and is it something we all need to start doing?
Dr. Meeta Singh: I work a lot with athletes, so the concept of coaching at the most basic level is easy for them to understand. It’s based on the old fashioned term, when ‘a coach’ was a horse drawn carriage that took you from point A to point B. Coaching the sleep muscle includes all aspects of improving and optimizing sleep, starting from education, giving athletes science-based tools that will ensure proper sleep. Of course, as is the case with any coaching, one can teach athletes skills, but the practice and utilization needs their buy-in and motivation.
So how do sleep and our biological and circadian rhythms influence athletic performance?
Sleep is essential for all aspects of athletic performance including optimal reaction times, accuracy, optimal motor function, focus, motivation, glucose metabolism, memory and learning, as well as stress regulation – all of which are integral for athletic performance.
Our circadian rhythms are intrinsic time-keeping biological clocks that also influence athletic performance. In fact, many major indexes of athletic performance like muscle strength, reaction time, flexibility are influenced by the circadian clock. As is muscle growth and maintenance! I like to think of sleep as a circuit board with one switch and if that switch fails everything else will also break down.
“A good sleep can help you feel sharper, more mentally focused, more alert, and in a better mood. You can experience improved cardiovascular functions and metabolism in the longer term.”
What happens inside our body while we sleep that helps improve physical performance?
Sleep will allow for psychological, physiological and physical recovery. It is really providing recovery at the cellular level and it does so by forcing reduced physical activity and reduced engagement of the brain with the environment. The reduced physical activity allows for physical recovery to occur while the reduced interaction of the brain with the environment allows mental recovery to occur. In fact, we now know that during sleep the brain gets cleansed of waste material akin to being power washed. Similarly, while the body is at rest, restorative functions as well as energy storage takes place.
So, if you’re committed to being fit and healthy what should you prioritize; getting up early for a workout, or sleeping in?
That really depends on how much sleep you got, although I think they are both essential and I wouldn’t like to be in the position of choosing! So, the best answer – go to sleep early enough to get your seven to nine hours of sleep, and schedule exercise at a time that won't be taken over by work or social obligations. That way you don’t have to decide between exercise and sleep. When you exercise also depends on whether you are a morning or an evening person, because asking a night owl to wake up and exercise is just plain wrong!
We know that exercise has tremendous health benefits, but sleep is a biological need that is essential for overall health. So if the choice was between getting regular sleep or getting regular exercise, I would say sleep gets precedence, as less regular exercise will not cause the same level of health issues that less sleep causes.
“There is a bi-directional relationship between sleep quality and physical activity – exercise can improve deep sleep and sleeping better enhances the ability to exercise the next day!”
How can you identify what your body needs most?
If you are feeling run down, exhausted and drowsy during situations you should normally be alert in, the choice is simple – get more sleep! I tell people that if they are getting more sleep on days that they are not working than they do on the days they are working it’s an indication that they are playing catch up and they are sleep deprived and need more sleep. Other signs are difficulty concentrating, reduced sex drive, increased irritability or anxiety.
What’s more important – amount of sleep, timing of sleep, or quality of sleep?
They are all important, although I think quantity comes before quality. I'll give you an example: it's like calories, you need to eat a certain number of calories to sustain life and it doesn’t really matter what the quality of the food is. Similarly, the quantity of sleep that you need is very important. It’s recommended that adults need seven to nine hours and if you get less than six hours of sleep, you're likely to be impacted.