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If the yawning faces at Starbucks every morning are any indication, most of us are seriously lacking a good night’s sleep. This may be especially true for athletes, who often feel the pressure to balance work, family and training. Whether it’s waking up for a 5 a.m. tempo run or hitting the treadmill after the kids have gone to bed, getting a full night’s sleep often gets bumped to the bottom of the to-do list.
If you often trade in Z’s for miles, it’s time to reassess your priorities. Skipping an hour (or more) of sleep in favor of work or play may help us feel like we’re getting extra time in the day, but experts say the consequences of sleep deprivation go far beyond fatigue.
THE PRICE TO PAY
In the short term, insufficient sleep can lead to impaired cognitive function and slower reaction times. Over a longer period, lack of sleep also leads to abnormal hormone levels, which may result in weight gain. In a 16-year study of over 60,000 women, researchers discovered that women who slept less than five hours per night put on more pounds than those who slept seven hours or more each night, even if they exercised and ate a healthy diet.
For runners, sleep is especially critical for performance, as deprivation can impair post-exercise recovery. During a workout, your muscles break down on a cellular level. Sleep allows the body to repair those cells, enabling you to bounce back stronger and faster.
Insufficient sleep also impacts our immune function and increases the risk of infection. Training without adequate sleep takes your already damaged cells and destroys them further until illness or injury finally force you to rest.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
The National Sleep Foundation reports that the average American gets just six hours and 50 minutes of snooze time a night, far less than the recommended seven and a half to eight and a half hours. But keep in mind that sleep needs vary from person to person, and if you are increasing your mileage, your body’s demand may be even higher than the recommended range.
A good gauge of whether you are getting adequate sleep is your daytime alertness and functioning. When you are sleeping enough, you are alert throughout the day. If you are in good health yet feel excessively drowsy, it’s likely you need more Z’s.
QUANTITY AND QUALITY
Getting more sleep is easier said than done. Even when you’ve been exhausted all day and tuck into bed at a reasonable hour, it’s sometimes difficult to fall asleep. Quality slumber takes more than turning out the lights. Here’s how to outsmart common sleep saboteurs . . .
Sleep Stealer: Your Hormones
Women are particularly at risk for poor sleep quality, says Maryann Deak, M.D., medical director at Sleep HealthCenters in Beverly, Mass. “Reproductive hormones impact sleep in women, who are more likely to have disturbed sleep during certain stages of the menstrual cycle.”
The fix: Schedule a nighttime ritual as well as a standard bedtime and waking hour. Then stick to them—yes, even on the weekends! A predictable routine helps your body stay on track during the ebb and flow of hormonal changes. If you experience other symptoms, such as hot ashes or missed periods, consult your doctor to test for pregnancy, menopause or hormone imbalance.
Sleep Stealer: Yesterday’s Workout
For some women, exercising close to bedtime makes it difficult to fall (and stay) asleep. Overtraining can also cause insomnia. Though you may be physically exhausted from an intense series of workouts, your brain is flooded with adrenaline, causing nervousness, heart rate changes and disrupted sleep patterns.
The fix: Exercise, when timed and executed correctly, should improve sleep quality, says Deak. She suggests athletes exercise in the morning, not at night, if possible. Avoid overtraining by gradually increasing your mileage and intensity—and never skipping rest days!
Sleep Stealer: Grande Café Mocha Latte Energy Shots
Caffeine has a credit-card effect. Though you get immediate gratification from consuming a Red Bull before your workout, you still have to pay it back— with interest. If you were tired before you got your energy x, it’s likely you’ll feel even worse when the jitters wear off. Java coursing through your veins is not a long-term solution for fatigue—in fact, it’s likely making your sleep debt worse.
The fix: Limit your caffeine consumption to early morning, and switch to water or herbal tea after noon. Additionally, be aware of the not-so-obvious sources of caffeine you may be consuming, including chocolate, pain relievers and vitamins.
Sleep Stealer: Cell Phones, Laptops and The Real Housewives
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 95 percent of Americans use some form of technology within one hour of going to bed. The artificial light coming from your television, laptop or cell phone tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. The result? You’re wired when you try to grab some shut-eye.
The fix: As part of your nightly routine, begin shutting off electronics one hour before your bedtime. Not muted, not on “standby mode,” not vibrate. Off. By doing this, you’re signaling to your brain that the day is over and it’s time to sleep. ■