Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 May

How to Get Fitter, Faster and Stronger with Quality Sleep

overtrainingAh, sleep. We all know how much we need it, mostly because when we don’t get enough, the world takes on a different, more negative hue. Lights seem brighter and sounds more vivid, and not in a good way. Perpetual fogginess clouds our thoughts, slurs our words, and prevents us from focusing on anything but the coffee pot timer. And then there’s the sleep deprivation research corroborating our experiences and explaining in lurid detail just how vital sleep is for our health. I’ve done my part in bringing this information to you, focusing for the most part on the metabolic health benefits of getting sufficient quality time with everyone’s sweet slumbery mistress. I’ve linked to articles discussing the links between poor sleep and ill liver health, disrupted metabolic function, and cancer. If you’re a regular reader of MDA, you’re probably aware of all this. Bad sleep can make you fat, sick, and prone to serious degenerative diseases.

That’s not the focus of today’s post, though. Today is for the people who miss out on sleep to catch an early morning workout, who stay up late reading fitness blogs and trading fitness memes on Reddit, who tell themselves that all that yawning they do in between squat sets is just weakness leaving the body. Did you know that sleep deprivation also hampers our athletic performance? That bad sleep makes us slower, weaker, and less coordinated? That sleep deprivation reduces the effectiveness of our workouts, and sometimes even reverses their beneficial effects? That it can hamper our ability to build lean mass?

Let’s look at some of the research.

Sleep and Muscle Mass

Lean mass accrual is a common motivation among fitness enthusiasts. Muscle looks good, makes us stronger, tends to accompany other benefits like increased bone density and fat loss, and helps keep us alive longer. There are a few lines of evidence suggesting that sleep loss increases the loss of lean mass and makes it harder to build it in response to exercise.

  • One older study found that total sleep deprivation increases urinary excretion of nitrogen, which could be indicative of muscle breakdown and loss of lean mass.
  • Sleep-deprived rats experienced muscular atrophy, an effect that appeared to be mediated by decreases in testosterone and increases in corticosterone (the “rat cortisol”).
  • more recent one found that insufficient sleep curtailed the efforts of obese human subjects to lose body weight and retain lean mass. Compared to the control group, the bad sleep group saw their lean body mass losses increase by 60% and their fat mass losses decrease by 55%. Markers of fat oxidation were reduced as well, suggesting that lean mass was being broken down into amino acids for energy.

Simply put, lack of sleep is a potent stressor, which means it increases the catabolic glucocorticoid family of hormones like cortisol and decreases the anabolic triad of testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone, effectively accentuating the “degradation pathways” while reducing the “protein synthesis pathways.” Few of us are experiencing the total sleep deprivation of 24-36 hours used in some of these studies, but 5-6 hour nights – chronic low-level sleep deprivation, the kind that’s endemic nowadays – do add up and exert many of the same effects, as shown in the study on obese humans limited to 5.5 hours a night.

Sleep and Performance

The effect of sleep deprivation on physical performance can’t be neatly summed up with a few tidy sentences. Sometimes it impairs performance and sometimes it has no effect at all. It really depends on what you’re measuring and what the subjects are actually doing. For endurance work, acute sleep deprivation doesn’t impair performance as much as you’d think, whereas for activities that demand greater motor control (like basketball or volleyball) or greater power output, acute sleep deprivation may have more negative effects. Let’s look at some of the studies that have been conducted.

Of course, that’s just talking about acute sleep deprivation, like going a night or two without sleep. That type of sleep deprivation is easy and inexpensive to study, because you only need the subjects for a day or two, but I’d argue that it isn’t very relevant to most people’s concerns. What I’m interested in are the effects of chronic sleep deprivation, like getting six hours of sleep every night for a year. Many, perhaps most, people are getting suboptimal sleep on a nightly basis. That’s tougher to study, because you need to track subjects for days, weeks, or (ideally) months and years (an expensive undertaking), but I think you can make some educated guesses:

Consider that during slow wave sleep, growth hormone is released to build muscle and repair tissue damage. If you’re not sleeping, or your sleep is disrupted, you’re going to limit slow wave sleep (which already begins to decrease in duration the older you get) and therefore limit your body’s ability to recover from and adapt to your training.

Consider the protein-wasting, lean mass-catabolizing characteristics of sleep deprivation described earlier. A big part of adapting to training and improving performance is the increase in lean mass that usually accompanies exercise. If you’re not sleeping, you’re limiting your ability to pack on lean mass and increase performance.

Consider the increased cortisol and decreased testosterone associated with bad sleep. A high cortisol:testosterone ratio is strongly linked to “declines in the maximal voluntary neuromuscular performance capacity.”

And finally, consider that getting more sleep than normal, or accruing sleep surplus, has repeatedly been shown to increase physical performance:

  • In a study, aiming for at least ten hours of bedtime each night over several weeks improved the Stanford men’s basketball team’s free throw and three point field goal percentages. 
  • In swimmers, six to seven weeks of ten hours of sleep a night decreased their 15-meter sprint time by half a second, increased their speed off the blocks, improved their turn time, and increased their kick stroke by five kicks.
  • In college football playerssix to seven weeks of ten hours of sleep a night decreased their shuttle run and 40-yard dash times.

What does this mean, in practical terms?

To get the most out of your workouts, and to be the best you can be, you need more sleep. Aim for ten hours, an unrealistic goal for most, but a worthy one nonetheless.

If you can avoid it, work out at a reasonable time that allows you enough sleep. Skipping sleep to exercise may be counterproductive, or at least less effective than working out at a time that allows sleep. If you absolutely need your daily morning WOD, go to bed early enough to make up for it.

Take naps when and where you can. Sleep adds up, no matter where it comes from.

As training intensity or volume increase, so too must sleep. There isn’t an easy formula or anything. Just sleep more.

Eliminate sleep impediments. Follow the usual best sleep practices we’ve talked about before.

That’s all well and good, but not everyone can get perfect sleep all the time. In the event of an unavoidable night of bad sleep, what can you do to ameliorate the negative effects on performance the next day?

  • Meditate. Meditation is an effective counterbalance to the negative cognitive effects of poor sleep, some of which include hampered reaction times.
  • Drink coffee. As always, caffeine is a dependable stalwart. It increases the “voluntarily chosen resistance training load” after a night of poor sleep, for one.
  • Take creatine. Creatine has also been shown to reduce the negative effects of a poor night’s sleep on performance about as well as caffeine.

We all know how much sleep matters, but we rarely think about its effect on our strength and fitness. Hopefully this post helps you realize the extent of its reach. If you want optimal results, you cannot compromise on sleep, nor can you train your way out of a deficit.

Thanks for reading, folks!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great post! I am 52 and had terrible chronic insomnia for many years — began in my late 30s and gradually got worse.

    I tried many things with no luck (no bright/blue lights near bedtime, no caffeine, totally dark bedroom, meditation, melatonin, valerian, warm baths, special pillows, special “sleep headphones” and more…).

    During all of this I was also eating a primal diet (no sugar for the last 5 or 6 years) and exercising regularly, but it didn’t help my sleep.

    It got to the point that even with sleeping pills (zopiclone), I wasn’t getting enough sleep to function. I thought I’d have to quit my job.

    I kept trying, however, and have finally (10+ years in) found a combination that works!!!! It’s B12 + topical progesterone + Natural Factors “serenity” formula with ashwagandha!

    I ditched the evil zopiclone, and I have my short-term memory back! And I have the energy to do things in the evening!!!

    Excuse all the exclamation marks, but getting a good night’s sleep is still so new to me and I can’t get over how wonderful it is! I’ve posted this in case my solution is helpful for someone else (but I suspect solutions may be very individual)

    PS – Zopiclone is BAD. I thought it wasn’t blurring my thinking, but when I stopped it, I realized it really was. Beware!

    Anne wrote on May 1st, 2013
    • This is really great! I’m glad you could find something. :)

      Amy wrote on May 1st, 2013
  2. creatine? Really? Paleo poser is suggesting short-term fixes and products?

    Jack wrote on May 1st, 2013
  3. Hooray for sleep!

    I love the fact that you included studies on athletes since that is who we look to for performance measures. Those were dramatic increases. I also love the fact that you say sleep ‘adds up’. I am working on becoming a napper, but it is harder said than done.

    The thing I notice MOST when I do not sleep enough is my craving for carbs. If I get any less than 5-6 hours (usually I sleep 8) the night before I consciously have to beat down my carbohydrate craving all day long.

    Thanks Mark for all the great content!

    Jon Kidwell wrote on May 1st, 2013
  4. Timely article. I just returned from 2 weeks in Korea and my sleep schedule is way off. I already have chronic insomnia, so this doesn’t help. I have now gone 4 days with approximately 4 – 5 hours each day. At least for tonight, I don’t think I have much choice but to take a sleeping pill. I don’t think I would be able to function very well with one more night like the last four.

    Peter Koch wrote on May 1st, 2013
  5. So much info, thanks! I work shift work with day-night-night pattens (7am-7pm then 2x 7pm-7am shifts) so getting enough sleep is so important for me. But it’s tough!!

    Jade wrote on May 1st, 2013
  6. This article hits home for me. I typically only get about 6 hours of sleep most nights and I know it is not enough. I have a full time job, I’m a single mom of two kids, and I work out lifting weights 5 days a week. I am ALWAYS busy doing something. Sleep is the last thing I want to do when I have so much going on. My biggest problem is time. I go to the gym after work from 6-7:30. On days I don’t go to the gym we have a baseball practice or a track practice until 7:30-8 pm. Then when we finally get home I make dinner and we usually don’t even finish eating until 9 pm. Then clean up and kids bed time and I might FINALLY get a minute to sit down to myself at 10 pm. The last thing I want to do is go right to bed! This is my time to get online, read blogs, plan meals, etc. Problem is it ends up being after midnight before I feel ready to go to bed every night. I want to go to bed earlier, I know I should, but I just can’t seem to make myself do it. I cherish those late evenings to myself. Ugh, it is a tough situation for me, I think about it often. Especially now that I have some specific strength training goals I am trying to hit and it is slow going. I think my chronic low level lack of sleep is effecting my progress. Any advice? I just cannot figure out how to get more sleep with my schedule and still get everything done. I guess something’s gotta give :-\

    Jennifer wrote on May 1st, 2013
  7. My ND is constantly telling me I need to get more sleep for my MS. Unfortunately I don’t feel I have enough hours in the day for…me (let alone everything else that needs to be done). Thankfully I don’t and will never have children so I’m thankful I don’t have that as a distraction – if that’s a good reason to be thankful.

    Because I don’t get paid time off from work and only take the main holidays off (Christmas and New Year) I haven’t had a proper vacation in over 7 years I really need to find a way to get more rest/sleep when I can.

    Carla wrote on May 1st, 2013
  8. Before taking exercise I had great difficulty in getting a good nights sleep. I sleep much better now after my daily workouts.

    I think the majority of people take sleep for granted, they don’t realise how vital it is to their long term physical and emotional health. Hopefully this article will help people realise more of its importance

    As a parent you really appreciate sleep as you don’t get much of it. Thankfully my kids have now reached an age were they are more settled.

    Sean wrote on May 2nd, 2013
  9. I try to get 8 hours sleep most nights.
    However , this is not a pure 100% sleep as I wake up maybe x2 to go bathroom.
    Is this a sign for anything?
    Also in the last 3 months I have purchased a sunrise alarm it’s fantastic , gradually wakes u up with light !!!

    Ryan carter wrote on May 2nd, 2013
  10. I definitely agree that sleep is a vital part of the recovery process. If I’ve had a late night out on a Friday, my track sessions the next morning usually suffer.

    Bit disappointed to see that college football players study doesn’t seem to mention any control group. I’d kind of expect them the improve anyway over 2 months of training anyway. Just playing devil’s advocate…

    David wrote on May 2nd, 2013
  11. It wasn’t until last year that I started realizing sleep had any value other than energy. I always wondered why I couldn’t lose weight in college even though I was working out regularly, eating healthfully (per SAD rules…), and so on, but I was also getting just 5 hours of sleep on a regular basis. Of course there were more factors at play, but I noticed a huge difference in my mental performance, energy, and physical appearance when I started prioritizing 8 hours of sleep a night. My body never seems to want more than that, but that amount plus a primal diet was the impetus for enormous progress towards better health.

    It’s fallen by the wayside now as more responsibilities have piled on. This post is a great inspiration to make sleep a priority!

    Alicia Jay wrote on May 2nd, 2013
  12. On another subject-I have been diagnosed with rhumatoid arthritis. Does andyone have any suggestions. It is very uncomfortable, to say the least.

    john andrews wrote on May 2nd, 2013
    • Check out Dr. Mercola’s website for a comprehensive RA treatment plan as well as Cure Zone and Earth Clinic

      C.A. wrote on May 8th, 2013
  13. A book whilst lying in bed……everytime! About 4 pages in & eyelids become SO heavy!!

    Jerry wrote on May 2nd, 2013
  14. Is this just to make me feel even worse? My body won’t sleep. I go to bed early, sleep but then wake too early and no amount of relaxation will help. I am always tired. So now I can stress about it too.

    Vicki wrote on May 3rd, 2013
  15. So often I read comments about everyone sleeping better since they moved to a primal lifestyle.
    Am I the only one whose sleep patterns have changed the other way?
    Prior to a primal lifestyle I would sleep solidly for 8-9 hours and still feel tired during the day. Since changing to primal my sleep seems to have fallen into a bi-phasic routine. I need to be up at 5:30am for work so try to be in bed by 9:30-10pm. No problems falling asleep but I often wake at 1-2am after a deep sleep feeling wide awake and ready to go for the day. I wake at that hour with so much energy I feel like getting up and going for a run or doing a work out (I don’t though). I can lie there for a couple of hours before drifting off again so my guess is I get around 6 hours sleep.
    My work requires intense concentration and I find I don’t feel tired at all during the day with this reduced amount of sleep. I actually feel like I have increased energy despite reduced sleep.
    I’ve even had a couple of nights recently where I’ve had less than 4 hours sleep yet there seems to be no consequence the following day.
    In my own little experiment I have experimented with higher carbs (eg potato) and on those nights I sleep a solid 8 hours but don’t wake feeling particularly refreshed.
    I’m even at the point where the once longed for sleep in on a Sunday morning is no longer appealing – the longer I stay in bed the groggier I feel for the rest of the day.
    Maybe it’s the reduced carbs that don’t knock me out each night, maybe my body has just found it’s balance. I really don’t know but it’s taken me by surprise.

    Julia wrote on May 4th, 2013
  16. I recently had three children in less than three years and I was going on 2-4 hours of sleep regularly until just four months ago. I had done all nighters before and missed a couple hours a week before, but I was always exhausted and had a hard time losing the baby weight. I had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, screwed up liver enzymes, etc. I had never had a health problem before in my life.

    A couple months ago I actually started to take naps with the kids for the first time since the first was born. I have been steadily getting more and more sleep now that they don’t wake up all the time, but I can actually tell how much better my body and mind work now that I’m getting 8-10 hours of sleep a night and some days I will still fall asleep with them for naps. I feel guilty to sleep that much sometimes but I always feel more alive after a good nap with them.

    My husband always tried to say he was a night owl and couldn’t fall asleep before 2 am, blah blah blah, but he never knew how to properly calm himself down. He doesn’t wake up with kids at night and he sleeps in on a regular basis, but now that he helps me put them to bed, he’s gotten to the point where he is passed out cold in five minutes after their 8pm bedtime. It’s very hard not to fall asleep when you have a peaceful, quiet, dark, and cozy room and you can’t move or make a sound cuz the kids will start laughing. He has been getting well over 10 hours of sleep most nights and has felt like he can conquer the world rather than just sit and watch tv every chance he gets!

    Sleep is amazing!

    Shelly wrote on May 4th, 2013
  17. Six years ago I was diagnosed with narcolepsy which means my brain doesn’t receive any restorative sleep whatsoever and hasn’t for around 7 years now. The stress my body has gone through as a result is astounding. I am 28 years old and it is visible that I am aging faster than I should. I have to train harder than most people to get the same results because all of those benefits that Mark listed regarding sleep do not apply to me as much.

    Narcoleptics sleep a lot (and at random times) but never receive the restorative benefits of REM because they dive into that stage of the sleep cycle without easing into it via the other stages. It is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the protein hypocretin, which is responsible for regulating sleep cycle. So I just loop REM for two hours and wake up…more often than not in a state of sleep paralysis. I then go back to sleep and repeat the process, waking up again approximately two hours later. I feel like I haven’t slept in years despite sleeping all the time or at least having the urge to. It is incredibly annoying. The restorative feeling of sleep usually wears off in 15 minutes then I go back to feeling wiped out. This has also contributed to my cataplexy which is a whole other mother.

    The point of this post is to just let you know that you need to appreciate your sleep and you should take the time to do it right. No shortcuts or areas of compromise. I could only wish that I could get all that back. I remembered how that felt and how much I took it for granted. I used to force myself to stay up and thought it was annoying to sleep, now I feel like an idiot for doing that.

    Note: A lot of people don’t realize they have a specific marker in their genetics that actually can pave the way for narcolepsy if they aren’t careful (an pandemic took place in Europe due to an unexpected response to the H1N1 vaccination.) Take care of yourself especially if your looking to have kids.

    Brandon Warren wrote on May 5th, 2013
    • i forgot to add that I don’t actually hit the other stages of the sleep cycle. I dive into REM within 1 minute of falling asleep. All my dreams are lucid and it feels like I never really go to sleep.. just go off to another world to stay awake longer.

      A normal person takes around 60-90 minutes to enter REM.

      Brandon Warren wrote on May 5th, 2013
  18. “the sacred silence of sleep!” – SOAD (there I go again being cheesy with song lyrics.. maybe because I’m subsisting on powdered milk).
    Lately I’ve been trying to improve my endurance and stay occupied by going on occasional long, overnight bike rides. They’re also meditative. There’s not too much visual stimuli taking my mind off pedaling and not too many cars driving me crazy (especially the people who practically force me into the ditch or stare – I swear some of them have slowed down for that, creeps!).. essentially just shades and stars. Then when I feel like I can’t crank out another km and my coffee no longer helps I sleep as much as necessary to recover.. maybe an afternoon of napping or even a full day. It’s probably not good for my circadian rhythm but my cardio is getting a bit better and after a lot of pedaling, even if my legs feel tired, they feel like they have a bit more spring.

    Animanarchy wrote on May 9th, 2013
  19. No matter how little sleep I get my internal clock always wakes me up before six AM Its great if I go to bed by 9 but thats not always the case .. and sometimes I go through the day in a haze…I will try Melatonin . and see if that helps..

    john wrote on May 9th, 2013
  20. I’m older so I expect less sleep. And I don’t worry about it because I don’t have any dark circles or other signs of sleep deprivation. I read once that just closing your eyes in bed and lying there gives you something like 30% the benefits of deep sleep. That little factoid has worked wonders reducing the fear that causes anxiety and ultimately loss of sleep. If you know you’re getting 30% of the benefits you actually stop worrying and do eventually fall asleep.

    My homebrew recipe for sleep is a hot shower, one aspirin, wear socks to bed, and use ear plugs. The socks are reputed to stop snoring (which wakes you up) and the ear plugs help prevent the instinctual desire to wake for protection at the slightest out of place noise. I firmly believe we all worry a lot when we sleep. Unfortunately, our subconscious needs this to help us work out problems, but it almost always causes anxiety and sleep loss. Try not to worry about sleep loss, and you will sleep better (see above)!

    Neo wrote on May 9th, 2013
  21. Mark, to study long term sleep deprivation effects, you need look no further than your local fire station. Most firemen in the US work a 24 hr shift, then 48 hrs off. I have been at the same busy firestation for 22yrs. So, every third night I get little to no sleep, but the nights I am at home, I sleep horribly. It has recently come to light that low Testosterone is at an epidemic level on our department. I am a 44yr female and my testosterone was <3. All of the men on my shift at my station are low and we are all on replacement. Most of these guys are young, (20's-30's) in good shape and try to take care of themselves. Heart disease, cancer and stroke are much higher in the fire service than the general public. Probably due to lack of sleep and stress. I'm going to read your linked articles to see if I can improve my sleep on my nights off.

    Norita wrote on May 29th, 2013
  22. I’ve always tried to sleep more but I don’t know why, it doesn’t really work out well for me. I handle my time and my responsibilities well enough to feel like going to bed between 10 and 11pm, which I do everynight. I don’t use an alarm clock, but I always wake up between 6 and 8am. The thing is usually I fall asleep around 2 to 3am (I stop checking now the time when I go to toilet but I think it’s still the same). So I usually end up with 5 hours, 6 if lucky, 4 if unlucky. If I fall asleep fast, like before midnight, I wake up around 5am, refreshed, and can’t get back to sleep.
    If I get more than 7 hours (very rare), I wake up with a headache and a blurry vision in my right eye…

    It seems that 5 to 6 hours is a right amount for me, I feel refreshed, I don’t have mood swings, I can workout. BUT I don’t pack muscles, or very slightly (190cm, 71kg, 15%bf). There’s a genetic part for sure, my father being the same, but I ‘m pretty sure the lack of repair time doesn’t help. I keep laying 10 hours on the bed though, hopefully one day it will catch up.
    Just sharing.

    Guill wrote on August 25th, 2013
  23. I’ll just leave this here:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8112265

    Laughlyn wrote on May 30th, 2014

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