The three-legged table…

Here's A Horrifying Picture Of What Sleep Loss Will Do To You.

Ok, maybe you’re one of those people who leapt into the new year with all guns blazing, or maybe you’ve been working out and had your nutrition dialed in for months, but you still look like/feel like doggie doo. “What in the actual heck is up?” you say.

Sleeping well? Sleeping enough? Have you built recovery days into your plan?

Be honest. Uh huh. I thought so.

Take a gander at the article linked above and be horrified. Seriously, be horrified. You can work your butt off at the gym, or running or doing P90X or Crossfit or whatever it is that gets you moving and keeps you active, and you can have the best diet in the world but if you’re not sleeping enough, not sleeping well and not taking a day or two each week to let your body catch up with all the shit you’re putting it through… Well, that ain’t gonna work.

Fitness and health are a three-legged table: exercise, nutrition and rest. Exercise provides the stress on your muscles, your connective tissues, your cardiovascular system and your neurological systems that allow you to get stronger, more agile, faster and more able to push back on whatever part of the world is pushing on you. Nutrition provides the fuel and raw materials for your body to build strong muscles and connective tissues, to synthesize the hormones that regulate all the stuff that goes on in our bodies, to repair damage, fight off illness and just plain live. But none of that happens without rest and recovery.

Muscles, connective tissues, nerve cells, organs are all repaired when they’re at rest. If you don’t sleep enough, don’t give your body enough time off, the work doesn’t get done or doesn’t get done right. And poor quality sleep can be just as bad as too little sleep. If you’re thrashing around all night, unsettled and overly active it will negatively impact the release of hormones that tell your cells which repairs to do. And that’s not to mention the mental and psychological impact of poor quality or too little sleep. Sleep deprivation will literally make you unable to process the stimuli you receive throughout the day properly, which will skew your perception of reality. Too little sleep, or poor quality sleep, can actually make you depressed, anxious or even psychotic.

And even if you’re getting plenty of sleep, if you’re not making active recovery a part of your plan then you’re going to sabotage yourself. Talk to any athletic trainer and ask them what they’d like the athletes they work with to do more and they’ll tell you – rest. There’s a reason why competitive runners and cyclists practice tapering their workouts prior to an event – it’s to give their bodies a chance to recovery sufficiently to be able to perform at the highest level possible.

Just look at your own experience doing your workouts. What does that last rep in that last set feel like? Not as good as the first rep in the first set, or even the first rep in the middle set. Why? Because your muscles and your neurological systems are tired. Not taking a rest day during your week is like asking yourself to always be doing that last rep in that last set.

What so many people seem to struggle with is thinking a rest day means sitting on the sofa watching a week’s worth of DVR’d episodes of The View while eating a bag of chips (I would actually rather put my eye out with fork covered in pigeon feces than do this, just for the record). No. A rest day means taking it easier than you would on a workout day. If your workouts are cardio-intensive then don’t do that type of stuff. Not a good day for a run. If your workouts are usually resistance training, well, a run or Zumba class might be just the ticket. I’ve been known to play soccer on a rest day. The point is to let the parts of your body that you worked hard all week take a breather and catch up.

So, what do you do about your sleep though if you think you’re getting plenty but don’t feel rested, look like crap and feel lousy a lot of the time. You can invest in a sleep-tracker (my Fitbit has been a revelation to me about my own sleep habits). If you’ve got a smart phone there are apps you can download that will allow you to set in a stand to take time-lapse photos while you sleep (lots of digital cameras will do this as well – some even have night vision capabilities) and see if it looks like you’re sleeping restfully or not. If you think it’s a major problem I’d recommend seeing your doctor. I’ve known many people who have had their sleep analyzed in sleep centers by professionals and gotten a lot of benefit out of it.

There are other things though that you can try on your own:

    1) No caffeine after 2 pm

    2) If you’re working out in the evenings, try to do it earlier (I know if I do a workout after 7 pm I’ll be up until midnight or later)

    3) Make your bedroom as dark as you possibly can

    4) Don’t use any computers or mobile devices within an hour of your usual bedtime (use of brightly lit screens can mess with the circadian rhythms of many people)

    5) Install F.Lux on your laptop or PC (it shifts the color tone of the light your screen puts out after dusk, I’ve been using it for a couple of years)

    6) Have a light snack right before bed (Contrary to popular belief, this can actually dramatically improve sleep, provided you eat the right thing. Protein is a bad choice right before bed, but carbohydrates can be great because they increase the level of tryptophan in the blood, which helps to make us sleepy.)

Here’s my favorite though – in the morning, as soon after you get up as possible, go outside and spend some time in the sunlight. A few minutes is plenty. What this does is set your body clock. We’re descendants of people who lived their lives by the light of the sun. The portion of human history in which artificial light and lots of nighttime activities have occurred is tiny. Our metabolic processes are attuned to the rhythm of the rise and set of the sun. Getting that morning sunlight on your eyeballs will tell your endocrine system “It’s daytime, start the clock.” Do this regularly and you may find that getting to sleep at night becomes much, much easier simply by switching off the lights.

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