Sleeping is the most effective recovery tool for triathletes, so how can we organise our training to ensure the best sleep quality?

While training smart almost always beats pure volume there’s no denying that, to a certain extent, we get out what we put in. This can often mean it’s tempting to spend less time in bed in favour of squeezing in more early morning or late evening sessions. But could this be impacting your recovery and performance?

In an interview on the Greg Bennett Show podcast, double Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee commented: “…sleeping, in particular, is the vast majority of [my] recovery… All the other things I think you can do outside that including massage, even compression and stuff are in the one-percenters…”

Brownlee’s own sleep regime is backed up by studies that suggest sleep extension (aiming for nine hours a night) can positively affect reaction times, mood, sprinting times and even improve swim turns and kick stroke efficiency.

Digging a little deeper into the exercise-sleep relationship, the physiological stress of training releases hormones including testosterone (which helps repair muscle tissue) and cortisol (which helps regulate metabolism and immune response, reducing inflammation).

Meanwhile 95% of growth hormone, which is essential for recovery, has been shown to be released during deep sleep.

Alarm clock
Aiming for nine hours of sleep a night can enhance recovery and performance. (Photo: Alexas_Fotos – Pixabay)

Studies have also looked at the effects of sleep deprivation on athletes. Results point to reduced submaximal strength and endurance as well as higher RPE levels, making you feel like you’re working harder for a given output.

In short, by not getting good quality sleep, you’re compromising key physiological and biochemical responses in the body, decreasing recovery speed and performance.

Timing Your Training For The Best Sleep Quality

So how should we time our training so it has the least effect on our sleep? The answer could lie in 2019 research on amateur ultra-runners published in the journal Physiology and Behavior.

Scientists found that sleep is most efficient (time to fall asleep is less and waking periods fewer) with moderate morning training, but that intensity is the most important factor. Low-intensity evening exercise affected sleep less than high-intensity morning sessions, which caused moderate hormonal and sleep disturbance. Meanwhile, high-intensity evening training had the biggest effect on sleep quality.

Therefore, in a double-session day, we’re better off doing intervals in the morning and endurance work in the evening to sleep better, optimise recovery and disprove the notion that ‘you snooze, you lose’!

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Triathlon Vibe is the home of triathlon training advice for beginner to expert triathletes. From sprint to Ironman, we share how to swim, bike and run stronger and faster.

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