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Improve Your Sleeping Habits

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Improve Your Sleeping Habits
CarbonNYC via Flickr

Did you know that not getting the recommended amount of sleep per night can hurt your mountain biking game? Unfortunately, many of us do not get close to the appropriate amount. And when we do sleep, it’s hardly restful.

However, athletes who incorporate sleep into their fitness program exhibit increased performance, higher motivation, are more organized, become sick less often, heal faster and are able to control weight gain better.

About.com caught up with Dr. Robert D. Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute and Dr. John Mayer, president of the International Sports Professionals Association and author of The Parents’ Mini-Manual on Sleep and Family Fit-2nd Edition to find out how cyclists can improve their sleeping habits.

About.com: How long before bedtime should you stop exercising? Why?

Dr. Oexman: Exercise is great for sleep. It reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the quality of sleep. To fall asleep and maintain sleep at night, our core body temperature needs to decrease. You can enhance this need for the core body temperature to drop by exercising three to four hours before bedtime. Your core temperature will rise with exercise and then begin to drop about the time you need to go to sleep. If you exercise too close to bedtime, your increased core body temperature will make it difficult to fall asleep (think about how you sleep when you have a temperature, not very good).

Dr. Mayer: Research shows that there is no magic time to stop exercising. In fact, whereas some people get stimulated and energized by a brisk workout and couldn't possibly sleep after exercise, others feel so totally relaxed with the same effect on their body as a hot bath, that they sleep wonderfully after a hard workout. The key is to “read” your body and maybe experiment a bit.

About.com: How many hours of sleep should you aim for per night and why?

Dr. Oexman: Research clearly shows we need seven to eight hours of sleep with most of us needing at least eight hours. If you think you can get by on less, you are most likely wrong and you will be suffering from the consequences. Do you need caffeine to get you going? Do you find your ability to learn information decreasing? Do you have difficulty concentrating? Is your athletic performance decreasing? Does it take longer for you to recover from an injury? All of these can be side effects of not enough sleep.

Dr. Mayer: Great question and often misunderstood and misquoted. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 45% of adults suffer from sleep problems. Here is my summary from the Sleep mini-manual:

Newborns spend about 70% of their time sleeping, adults only 25-30%. The recommended number of hours for different age groups is: Infants (one week to nine months old) require about 14 to 16 hours of sleep daily, 13 hours by age two, 11 hours by age five, 10 hours by age 10 and 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours during adolescence. Adults should get eight hours of sleep for the duration of their lifespan. It is a myth that adults' need for sleep keeps decreasing with age. If that were the case, we would require one hour of sleep by age 50. Eight hours of sleep consistently through adulthood is the recommendation of researchers.

About.com: Why is it important to stick to a sleep/exercise schedule?

Dr. Oexman: If you change your wake time and bed times during the week and on the weekend, your body is in a constant state of "jet lag". Our bodies are on very specific time schedules regulated by our internal body clock or circadian rhythm. Changing the time we sleep and exercise causes imbalances in our circadian rhythm, making it difficult to go to sleep, maintain sleep or make it difficult to wake up. Zeitgebers are anything that “resets” our circadian rhythm. Exercise and light are strong zeitgebers.

Dr. Mayer: Our bodies thrive on regularity and habits when it comes to sleep and exercise. To maximize both sleep and exercise, it is important to keep a regular schedule as much as possible. And, don’t be fooled when friends say they don’t do that and it works for them.

About.com: At what point in the day should you cut out caffeine? What about alcohol?

Dr. Oexman: Caffeine has a “half-life” of about 12 hours. This means for some people you can still feel the effects 12 hours after you ingest the caffeine. Stop drinking all caffeine (coffee, soda, tea) after 10:00 in the morning. Some people are very sensitive to caffeine and should avoid it all together. Alcohol is metabolized at about one ounce per hour. If you have two glasses of wine, you should do this at least two hours before bed. Alcohol will make it easier to fall asleep, but it decreases quality of sleep later in the night.

Dr. Mayer: I recommend stopping caffeine at least four hours before bedtime and alcohol approximately three hours.

About.com: Does napping make you feel energized? How long should a nap be?

Dr. Oexman: Naps should be 15 to 20 minutes. This prevents you from getting into deeper sleep, which will cause a “sleep hangover” or the feeling that you just can’t wake up very well after the nap. The 15 to 20 minutes of light sleep has shown to increase wakefulness. If you have trouble sleeping at night, you may want to consider doing away with the nap for two weeks and see if that increases the quality of your sleep at night. Napping during the day may make it more difficult to sleep at night.

Dr. Mayer: I’m not an advocate of napping no matter what others say. In my experience and research, napping is a bad habit because it disrupts our regular schedule of sleep. You nap after work or school, then you can’t get to bed at a reasonable hour and then you are sleep deprived for the next day. And the cycle continues on and on.

About.com: How can getting less than normal sleep impact your ability to perform tasks?

Dr. Oexman: Research has shown that people who do not get proper quantity and quality of sleep have reduced reaction times, diminished motor skills, decreased muscle memory, higher inflammatory markers and increased healing times.

Dr. Mayer: Lack of sleep weakens the body and zaps strength, so you can’t perform basic body functions with as much strength as normal. Likewise, the lack of sleep has direct effects on attention and mental alertness, so your perception and thinking, especially the ability to think quickly and make quick decisions, is heavily impaired as much as 40%. Finally, lack of sleep has direct effects on vision, so your ability to see and especially to make quick vision adjustments is dampened.

About.com: How might less-than-normal sleep harm your exercise routine?

Dr. Oexman: People who do not get enough sleep have lower motivation levels. They often report feeling too tired to work out. They have increased healing times, which may cause them to stay on the sidelines longer.

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