Importance of Sleep in Martial Arts. Our need for sleep and its particular pattern changes over the course of our lifetime. We are all unique and hence require different amounts of sleep. In general though, research demonstrates that most people need between 8-9 hours of sleep per night. It is important to discover how much sleep your body needs to best support your physical and mental training needs.
It is well agreed that athletes and Martial Artists who engage in rigorous exercise need more sleep than people who do not exercise. Ensuring Martial Artists and athletes have the highest quality sleep is paramount as poor sleep can significantly impact on physical recovery and performance as well as increase the likelihood of injury. Having enough sleep is associated with increased performance accuracy and decision-making which is essential for combat and fighting situations. On the contrary, sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively impact on one’s memory, reaction-time, vigilance, concentration/focus, decision-making and overall performance. Sleep deprivation also results in increased Cortisol (a stress hormone) during the day which can further affect our mood.
The Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Stage. Our Circadian Rhythm is our natural day-night cycle of wakefulness and sleepiness. People are generally most alert around 9am and 9pm and most sleepy around 3am and 3pm. At 3pm, we also have a drop in our Cortisol level and it is often at this time that people will be drawn to caffeine or sugar to give them a boost.
As humans, we have 5 sleep stages and as the night progresses we cycle through these stages many times. Over the course of the night we have more REM (Rapid Eye Movement Sleep) but less ‘deep sleep’. So the initial few hours of sleep are highly important. How often have you awoken right in the middle of a deep sleep or a dream and felt ‘off’ all day? This is due to waking from within your deep sleep. Most people these days set their alarm and the risk is that you may be pulled out of a deep sleep and struggle to feel balanced and grounded. If that is the case, you may like to try to wake naturally as often as you can if your lifestyle allows it. Ideally, it is best to wake when you are in a lighter stage of sleep or after a completing a whole sleep cycle. One sleep cycle is generally 1.5-2 hours and varies between people.
The Secret of Effective Napping. Power naps during the day (of up to 40 minutes) can be very helpful in reducing tiredness and increasing energy particularly if you have a heavy training schedule. Much more than 40 minutes however, will put you into a deeper stage of sleep. Also, having a nap earlier in the day (and not after 2:30-3pm) is preferred as it is less likely to interfere with your evening sleep. Naps have also been shown to be most effective if they occur at the same time each day.
Melatonin is Key to Improving Sleep. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced in the brain by the pineal gland. As darkness increases, so does Melatonin and this sends the message to the body that it is time to rest and recover from the day’s activities. It starts to increase around 9pm ultimately triggering sleepiness. However, in our modern day we are exposed to greater amounts of light (eg. TV, Mobile Phone, artificial indoor lights, etc) all of which delay the production of Melatonin and hence onset of sleep.
Given that light exposure increases alertness, be mindful of this and try to reduce your exposure if you wish to improve your sleep. One suggestion is to dim the lights an hour or two before. Some people find wearing an eye mask and / or using block out curtains can also facilitate more effective sleep. Avoiding use of electronic devices (with light exposure) for a few hours before sleep is also beneficial, though most people find this a real challenge.
If you are having sleeping difficulties and wish to improve your sleep one of the best ways to do this is through guided meditation or reading a book. Please note that if you choose to read at night, please read a real physical book rather than from an electronic device (as the light delays Melatonin production and signals to the brain that it is still day). You can have a lamp behind you so it does not go directly travel into your eyes.
Caffeine – It May Wear off Quickly but Remains in the body for Hours! Caffeine blocks adenosine and hence the message that you need sleep is not received and sleepiness is not felt. Caffeine also puts you into the ‘fight or flight’ response (stress response) and can also give rise to ‘mindyness’ or over-thinking. Caffeine also has a half-life of up to 9 hours and thus stays in the body for a long time even though the affect seems to have worn off.
When caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, your brain is tricked into thinking it still has lots of energy. So if our brain and body needs sleep, we don’t receive the message. The other problem with caffeine is that it triggers the ‘fight or flight’ system which produces adrenaline and hence a burst of energy to deal with current task. This system is not designed to deal with challenges for a long time and the risk of burning out and over-taxing our adrenals is high.
Alcohol – To Drink or Not to Drink? Alcohol consumption is another lifestyle choice which plays a role in sleep quality and quantity. Whilst people often report that they can fall to sleep at a faster rate after consuming alcohol, scientific studies show that the quality of the sleep is very much impaired. Alcohol reduces our deep sleep which is essential in the rest and recovers process for the body.
Over-thinking. This is another factor which can substantially interfere with the quality and quantity of sleep. The more we think the more we wake up as our mind assume it is time to work. Meditation is one of the best ways to enhance sleep and reduce unwanted and unnecessary thinking. It is imperative that you ensure you have spent enough time earlier in the day (and not just before sleep) to problem-solve any difficulties you are experiencing in your life. That way, your mind does not need to attempt to process these in the dream-time!
Make Sleep a Priorit. Effective sleep is absolutely essential and must be seen as a high priority for overall physical and mental health as well as performance and recovery. You may need to discipline yourself and make sacrifices in order to achieve this, but it is possible if you make it a PRIORITY, the results are certainly worth it.
A Martial Artists Perspective On Priorisiting Sleep by Master Fabio Zambelli
A healthy body sleeps well. Don’t get me wrong: we all need to work, we all need to have a social life, hobbies and interests, and above all we all need to find happiness and satisfaction in life (which does not necessarily has to come from our career or family). If you decide to commit to Martial Arts training on a regular basis, you must consider the same aspects that you would if you own an expensive racing car. That is, you will need to dedicate more effort and time to ensuring its performance is perfect and all of the details are taken care of.
Initially when you commence a new training program, it may be fine to eat and rest more. However, when you decide to increase your training to multiple hours each day you will suddenly see the headquarters of your brain turn on as many switches as possible so your body can cope with the workout overload. In this case, 6-8 hours of sleep won’t be enough and suddenly you may find that you need 10-12 hours of sleep to be refreshed. Honour this need and try not to rely on taking ‘shortcuts’ like coffee which is an over used trick to keep your busy lifestyle ‘on the go’.
The best compromise. As life becomes more demanding since increasing your training commitments, you may notice you have a new problem to solve. Either you give up something that is less important in your life to enable more time for sleep, or you keep pushing yourself and resting less. Even worse, if you are relying on coffee or another stimulant, sooner or later your body will ask you for the bill!
I personally love coffee, but I value having a balanced lifestyle even more and know I can be proud of myself because I am not dependent on caffeine to keep me going.
Your bed like your mechanic. In the end, don’t be ashamed if you spend a lot of time sleeping: you are just taking care of yourself, allowing your body to recover and releasing GH (growth hormone) which is useful for your workouts to unleash their benefits in terms of muscle mass gain. These days, modern society asks everyone to do more and more and everyone is always walking around saying how busy they are. If you are slowing down after training to enable your body to rest and recover, there may be a sense of feeling different from others, from a society where people live to pursue more and more (that is, on a material level). So, try not to compare yourself to others, your life is your own and you have the right to honour yourself and your goals. Goodluck!