Building Resilience Part 1: Beyond Sleep

One of the key challenges that I knew Race Across America (RAAM) and my qualifying races would present would be that of sleep restriction. I’d watched the films of RAAM showing people riding until they literally fell off their bikes (sometimes with disasterous consequences) and knew that it was something I needed to address. I wasn’t exactly sure where to start as apart from round-the-world yachtsmen and women, there aren’t many people putting themselves through this sort of sleep reduction challenge!

I had been pondering this when I came across an article on sleep by Nick Littlehales in a magazine. Nick is an elite sports sleep coach who has worked with Team GB, Team Sky and many other teams and athletes globally (including some of the aforementioned yachtspeople). His credentials speak for themselves and the article made a lot of sense so I reached out and asked for a consultation.

My initial focus when I approached Nick was all about guidance for the races themselves – what sleep strategy should I use? How should I use caffeine? How could I train myself to deal with minimal sleep? Nick’s approach however, is both broader and deeper. He encouraged me to take a much more holistic approach to the whole concept of Recovery as part of everyday life, rather than just for training and racing.

His rationale was very simple; I needed to get myself to the start line of RAAM mentally and physically ready to perform at my best. This meant that I needed to increase both my physical and mental resilience to ensure that I was able to recover fully from an increasing training load alongside the additional challenges of a full-time veterinary job (something that professional athletes don’t have to deal with). Building the right habits day-to-day would help both me and my crew to arrive on the start line refreshed.

Nick has since published a great book (Sleep) which makes all his knowledge accessible to everyone, but here are the key messages that I took away from my initial consultations with him…..

An average sleep cycle is around 90minutes for most people. During this time you will go through REM (Rapid Eye Movement), deep sleep and then come back round into a lighter stage of sleep. By sleeping in multiples of 90 minutes you ensure that you are waking up when your body is at a light stage of sleep, enabling you to feel refreshed rather than in that groggy state when you wake from deep sleep.

Plan your bedtime by working back from your required wake time in multiples of 90 minutes.

The body functions best when our wake up time is kept as constant as possible. This means not giving in to the temptation of trying to catch up on sleep at weekends by having a lie in. Although it might help us to feel better in the short term, it’s disruptive to our long term sleep pattern. Try and go to bed earlier instead and get an extra cycle that way.

Naps are an integral part of an holistic approach to recovery and are not a sign of weakness or being lazy. A nap of up to 25min will give you a real benefit; it allows your brain to power down and go through a little recovery phase of its own. We may laugh at our European cousins having a siesta is really beneficial to our health, particularly for athletes training hard or anyone with a busy life. Sit down, turn off distractions, close your eyes and switch off. You may nod off (possibly just for a few seconds) but even if you don’t it will still be of real benefit to both physical and mental health. The best times to nap for our circadian rhythm are 1300-1500 and 1700-1900.

When are you at your best? First thing in the morning (Lark) or late in the evening (Owl)? Try to adapt your schedule to this so as an Owl you go to bed later and get up a bit later and vice versa for Larks. If you have important things to do, try to do them at the time of day that you function at your best. Similarly, if you are working in a team environment, particularly if you need to do shifts, then put Owls and Larks at the ends of the day when they will be working optimally rather than fighting their natural desire to switch off.

Your bedroom should be focused around sleep. Wherever possible, keep tech out of it… this includes televisions. Think about your curtains – do they create sufficient darkness? What about temperature (slightly cooler than you might want just for sitting around in). Check your pillows and your mattress are giving you the appropriate level of support. Sleeping position is important – if you think about it, if you sleep in the wrong position it’s like doing it for almost a whole day. Consider a Lumie alarm clock or similar that has sunrise and sunset functions to assist your brain with white light for waking up and warm light for powering down.

Caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours, so should be avoided in the afternoon. Alcohol is also a stimulant – although too much initially makes you feel sleepy, it will affect sleep quality even in quantities that you don’t necessary think are having much of an effect on you whilst you are awake.

Preparation for sleep should begin about 90 minutes before you are planning to go to sleep and during this time everything should be focused on winding down. This includes avoiding television, mobile phones and other devices. These emit blue light which stimulate special receptors in the brain that help us to wake up with natural daylight – not helpful when you are trying to sleep. Television and other devices also stimulate our thoughts and emotions and can cause a low-grade stress reaction (especially if they have anything to do with work). Instead, have a shower to get your body temperature ready for bed and engage in relaxing activities like reading. By taking this time to literally power down your brain, you will get to sleep much faster and sleep more deeply. Keep a notebook by your bed to allow you jot down any thoughts or things you need to do in the morning so you can get them out of your head.

Plan time for a morning routine to allow your body and brain to come back on line in the morning. This means getting up rather than snoozing and then doing some gentle movement and brain activity rather than launching straight into the day. It’s not something that’s mentioned in polite company, but bowels take a while to come on line too and allowing time for breakfast and a hot drink to stimulate action in that department will ensure you start the day more comfortable and able to focus. If not, this can upset their routine for the rest of the day leading to constipation and bloating.

This applies to both family and work environments. Talk about recovery habits with your partner or spouse – what little things can you change to ensure you are better rested and able to be more productive and happier? What habits do you want your children to get into? At work, help to create the right culture within your team. Encourage screen breaks and people taking down-time at lunch. I sometimes took a short power nap in the car or across in the local park (in the summer!). “I don’t have time for a lunch break” is a frequent complaint, but given that statistics show that productivity drops and mistakes are more likely to be made in the afternoon* as well as the benefits of a time-out on mental and physical health being well documented, taking a break should be seen as the responsible thing to do.

Has Nick’s advice made a difference? Absolutely. My husband Kyle and I gradually tried to implement the above points consistently and we still do. The key result for me was being able to keep up the massive training load for both Race Around Ireland and Race Across the West alongside a full-time veterinary job where 11-12 hour days on my feet were fairly commonplace and I was also working a weekend rota. Whilst I was tired, I stayed healthy and injury-free and for the most part, reasonably sane (or at least, as sane as I was when I started!). Whilst I wasn’t doing veterinary work for the 5 months running up to RAAM, I did increase my training load, added additional stress with altitude training and was spending long hours studying and building a business.

Whilst sleep deprivation took its inevitable toll on RAAM, it was the resilience I’d built over the last few years that helped me deal with the inexorable deterioration of my neck as long as I did during the race and to emerge from the whole DNF (Did Not Finish) experience mentally stronger.

Think recovery, build resilience, sustain performance.

*The Health and Safety Executive has many statistics on the effects of fatigue at work as well as guidance on what to do about it.