In our final installment in this blog series, we’re going to touch on the variables - sleep, stress and hydration - that could quite possibly make or break your success regardless of how dialed in you are on your training and nutrition. While there are specifics for managing these variables, a few of which we will cover, the overarching idea is that for you to achieve what you want, to have the effort and focus that you put into your goals you must be an effective manager of these factors.
The interplay of sleep, stress and hydration on our training and nutrition is tightly linked. You can eat and train perfectly but if you are not getting enough sleep you are leaving potential on the table. And for a second, forget training. Sleep, stress and hydration invariably affect how we show up everywhere in our lives: work, relationships, activities, self-care, etc. Thankfully, this is an area that is often easier to adjust than training and nutrition. There tends to be less emotional attachment or judgement around sleep or how much water you drink during a day (versus exercise where we may have a somewhat broken relationship with needing to train or eat a certain way).
So how can you start? First, remember that figuring out your recipe requires some introspection and conscious awareness of how you feel to dial it in for you. Remember as you are reading this: these are guidelines and recommendations. The specifics are up to you to discover!
You gotta do it. I know there’s some of you out there who are all, “I only need 4 hours and I’m fresh as a daisy the next day” but I’m going to flat out tell you that you are lying to yourself. Try sleeping consistently for 8 hours a night and then tell me how fresh your "4-hours-a-night daisy" was. The average adult needs 7-9 hours of restful sleep a night for optimal recovery, both mental and physical. Chronic lack of sleep can, over time, lead to decreased immunity. Couple that with other habits that fall by the wayside when we’re “too tired” - hello, training and nutrition! - and we’re staring down the face of chronic disease.
Outside of hitting my hours, is there an optimal way to sleep? In fact, yes, there is. There five habits we can consider to optimize the quality (and quantity) of our sleep:
- Get bedtime RIGHT - we are biologically programmed to sleep when it’s dark out and be awake when it’s light out. Depending on the time of year and where you are in the world, this is typically between 8pm and 6am. That is a 10 hour window for you to get 7-9 hours of sleep. Figure out when you need to wake up then back that out 7-9 hours - tada! That’s your new bedtime. So what if it’s 9pm!
- Get a routine - figure out a pre-bed ritual. Something that takes 10-15 minutes that signals to your body that it’s time to start shutting it down for the night. Make it simple enough that you can do it even when you are away from home!
- Dark and cool - your room should be pitch black and about ~65 degrees.
- Ban blue light - your bedroom should be for two things - sleep and sex. It’s true - so why is there a TV in your room? Watching TV or working in your bedroom (worse, in your bed) signals to your brain that it needs to be processing. This will keep you from truly restful sleep. Consider cutting off use of electronics 15-20 minutes prior to going to sleep to reduce the amount of blue light exposure immediately before bed.
- Read a book - bored without your phone or TV? You just created time to dig into a book!
It’s inevitable. There’s good and bad stress, major and minor stress, emotional and physical, psychological and physiological. The body responds the same way regardless of the input. As with many things in life, moderation is key. Let’s look at exercise as a brief example:
You want to get stronger. You must apply a stress to your body to create adaptation. You go through a progressive overload training cycle, manipulating training variables like volume and load, for 12 weeks and at the end of the cycle, you can lift more than you could at the beginning. You are stronger. You have responded to a stress.
If you don’t apply enough stress, you won’t see the adaptation. If you apply too much, you may end up injured or you may quit - either way, you won’t see the adaptation. There is a sweet spot for positive adaptation - desired outcome - to occur.
From the perspective of training adaptation, we must clarify that your body responds physiologically to any stressor in the same way. This means that if you are emotionally stressed because of work or a relationship or a family strain, your body is already bearing that stress too. So then you go and try to push it hard in the gym and you can’t, so you get frustrated and beat yourself up about it, perpetuating the stress overload. The body does not discriminate in it’s response to what is stressing it. That means that energy that could be going towards your training adaptations and recovery from intense training could be going to waste because you are not managing stress in other areas of your life.
Recognizing and accepting your stressors and putting your energy towards the appropriate ones at the appropriate times is a critical part of your development as an athlete.
Drink up! Most adults don’t consume enough water. If we’re approaching this as we have in this blog series from a performance and development perspective, it is a crucial step in this process. On average, we should be consuming between ¾ - 1 gallon of water daily. On average. This does not take into account heavy sweat loss through exercise, climate differences or individual differences. You’ll have to do some detective work on your own to figure out what amount works best for you and your circumstance.
Wondering how you can boost your water consumption? A few easy tricks can have you well on your way:
- Have a full glass of water by your bedside when you go to bed. When you wake up, drink it all. Before you’ve even stood up, drink the whole thing. Now you’re setting the tone for your day!
- Any time you’re hungry, drink water first. Still hungry 10-15 minutes later? Might be time to eat. Sometimes, however, thirst manifests as hunger, hence why a little water in response to hunger can go a long way.
- Buy a big water bottle - there are plenty of cool, large water bottles out there these days. Buy one and carry it everywhere. Figure out how many bottles you need to consume to hit your goal for the day. Great visual representation of your hydration status.
- Set an alert on your phone or computer to drink every hour. It’s easy to get caught up in work and forget to have a drink.
While we started this blog series off talking about training (I am writing this from a gym, after all), the other components - nutrition, sleep, stress and hydration - are the true stars of the show. If you can feel confident in how you are handling those aspects, you can focus on your training and it all falls into alignment. If one of those four is off, more than likely your training isn’t optimal and you’re stalling out. Try make the easiest adjustments first, then expand out. Focus on your sleep, acknowledge and manage your stress and drink enough water!
Always remember that there are multiple variables affecting how you show up in the gym. Be honest about those variables on a daily basis. Consider your “why” for your training as well - what is your reason for showing up? Knowledge of these things will help drive your training and development.
Until next time,