Sleep = Speed

Determined to shave those few minutes off your PB? Getting some quality shut-eye could be the key

In Adharanand Finn’s fine book Running With The Kenyans, the author spends six months in the Rift Valley trying to unlock the secrets of why the Kenyans are such extraordinary endurance athletes. While altitude and culture were typically part of the mix, rest and sleep were cited as key to their continued success. Lornah Kiplagat, for instance, who’s held several world records over the years, is famous for sleeping up to 16 hours a day in pursuit of peak performance.

“Whatever time of year it is, sleep is your best recovery strategy,” says Dr Shona Halson from the Performance Recovery Centre at the Australia Institute of Sport. (Yes, recovery has its own department.) “Getting quality sleep – around eight hours but different for all – is vital for physiological and psychological recovery.”

Dr Halson feels sleep is one of the most neglected areas – both practically and research-wise – for competitive athletes, whether that’s age-grouper or elites. This is why, during this Olympic cycle, much of Dr Halson’s focus centres on helping athletes sleep.

Important questions she’s looking to answer include whether the brain can be manipulated to encourage sleep and which recovery strategies might alter brain state to improve sleep. “The brain controls everything and we now have better technology to understand what’s happening at a neural level,” she explains. “We’re currently examining non-pharmacological means of assisting athletes to sleep. This includes sleep hygiene education, biofeedback and neurofeedback.”

Clearly the Australian Institute of Sport doesn’t want the world to know what methods it’s employing, but current biofeedback methods elsewhere include placing sensors on your skin to track muscle tension or brain rhythms. You can then gauge the level of tension and develop strategies to reduce it, including slow breathing and relaxing of the muscles.

The importance of sleep can’t be underestimated and, just as with rest, every single expert we spoke to revealed their charges just didn’t get enough. Time to dig out that album of wind chimes and bird sounds…

really exist or is it simply a nutritional myth?

“While the 20-minute window is overly prescriptive, nutrition recovery should begin ASAP,” declares Dr James Carter, head of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. “Protein synthesis rates are elevated following both resistance and endurance exercise, while muscle glycogen has the potential to be optimised 1-2hrs following exercise due to improved glucose entry into the muscle.”

Timing the intake of those carbs is crucial to a swift recovery and should feature a drink (sports drink, diluted fruit juice, milk) and food (bananas, flapjack, pasta, cereals). Aim for 1-1.2g carbs per kg bodyweight, so a svelte 60kg racer should consume 60-70g, which equates to a large banana and a flapjack, ideally spaced throughout the hour. Follow this strategy until you enjoy a regular meal.

During that first hour, 20g of protein is the aim. This equates to two large eggs, though milk, a protein bar or yogurt might be more practical so close to crossing that finishing line.