The Elephant in the Room: Getting Enough Sleep

Sleep is the elephant in the room when it comes to training plans. If you want to be a champion cyclist, your training hours need to roughly match those of your strongest competitors. It is possible to tweak training to get more fitness benefit from fewer hours, but it’s a fair bet that the racers who get on the podium in your races are being efficient and putting in the hours, too.

Many factors contribute to effective training, but training makes you more tired, not stronger. You get stronger during recovery. One particular problem can eliminate recovery entirely, taking training efficiency to zero no matter how many hours you ride.

To reach the elite level for any age group in cycling, or any other sport, you need adequate sleep as well as adequate training. Many athletes squeeze in more training by getting up earlier or going to bed later, but it doesn’t work if the extra training hours come at the expense of sleep hours.

Extensive training on limited sleep will get you fitter than not training, but not as fit as would a better balance of training and sleep, even if that means a bit less training. Often, shorting sleep to increase training is actually counter-productive as power drops by 20-50 watts more when a rider is tired compared to when he or she is better rested.

Needing sleep is part of the human condition. It’s not a sign of weakness. Going without sleep is not a sign of strength. Rather, skipping sleep gradually reduces strength.

Are You Up or Down?

Your body can exist in two states: When you are training or otherwise experiencing stress, you are in challenge mode. Adrenaline (among other “stress hormones”) is high, bringing alertness, muscular strength, and carbohydrate breakdown for quick energy and performance. Adrenaline also slows digestion, muscle repair and the immune system. When adrenaline is high, blood glucose is metabolized rather than stored, so you don’t replenish glycogen.

Normally, when you are relaxing or sleeping, you are in repair mode, adrenaline level is low, strength is low, and exercise performance is terrible, but digestion is working, along with muscle repair and immune function. Blood sugar, if you’ve eaten recently, is being converted to glycogen to fuel the next training session.

If you get plenty of sleep and have a reasonably low stress job, you can be in repair mode as you sit at your desk typing or talking on the phone. Normally you can be in repair mode while watching TV. If you get plenty of sleep, you can be in repair mode even when you are not sleeping.

When you are tired, your body has a drive toward sleep. If you keep yourself awake, your adrenal glands will crank out adrenaline to keep you alert despite the sleep drive. But remember, when adrenaline is high, your body is in challenge mode and not in repair mode. That means if you are badly sleep deficient, recovery is slowed or stopped even when you are relaxing.

Caffeine works to keep you alert by increasing those same stress hormones that prevent recovery, so using caffeine to stay awake directly slows recovery, muscle repair and glycogen storage, even while it makes it possible to do your work or stay awake through dinner.

In order to recover during non-sleep, off-bike time, you must get adequate daily sleep.

Sleep Debt

Getting enough sleep is essential to benefiting from the training you do and reaching your potential as an athlete, but how much sleep do you need and how do you know if you are getting enough? Each person has a particular average daily amount of sleep they need for them to remain in the optimal zone for health, mental clarity and performance. You don’t need to get the full amount every day but on the average over several days you do. You can get more sleep some days to make up for missing sleep on others.

The needed amount of sleep varies quite a bit. I’ve had a master Cat IV client who could win races week after week for months on four hours of sleep per night, but that is extremely unusual. Most people exercising minimally perform best on somewhere around eight hours sleep per 24-hour cycle, either as a straight block of hours during the night or as a shorter night-time sleep combined with a regular nap. Heavy training increases sleep need. Most bike racers need 8.5-9 hours of sleep per 24 hours, and some need as much as ten hours for optimal performance.

If you sleep much less than your optimal number of hours, your performance is impaired until you make up the missing hours, close to one-for-one. You have to miss a lot of hours to get a noticeable impairment though, which makes it possible to accumulate a large “sleep debt” without noticing it. The difference between optimal performance and starting to feel tired during the day is typically around 10 hours of missed sleep. Add another 10 hours missed sleep and you are exhausted all the time. A few more and you are falling asleep at work or even while driving.

As sleep debt increases, sleeping becomes more efficient. When you are chronically sleep deprived, you get more sleeping done in less time. That’s what makes it possible to survive long term on short sleep hours. You’ll never get to high performance this way, but you can undersleep daily for months or years without deteriorating infinitely. As you catch up on sleep, your sleep becomes less efficient again so you can never catch up completely without getting your daily sleep need for an extended time.

Impaired training probably hits around the same sleep-deprivation level as daytime fatigue, when you are down roughly ten hours of sleep. You can’t make up for that much sleep debt by sleeping in on one day. When you’ve slept a few hours more than normal, you’ll wake up, even if you are not caught up on sleep. Correcting a large sleep debt takes several days or even several weeks, depending on how many hours per day more than your basic need you can actually sleep.

Are You Sleeping Enough?

If you are tired at work or you need caffeine to keep you awake, you are not getting enough sleep. If, when you get in a dark, quiet comfortable bed, you fall asleep as your head hits the pillow or in less than five minutes, you’d perform better on the bike if you regularly got more sleep. If you need about 10 minutes to fall asleep, even if you haven’t had caffeine or any other stimulant recently, you’re in the good range. If it takes 20 minutes or more for you to fall asleep, you are getting plenty of sleep and might as well train a bit more rather than lying around waiting to nod off.

Being able to wake up on time without use of an alarm clock is a sign you are getting enough sleep. There are many causes of irritability, frequent colds, pains and injuries, but lack of sleep is certainly one of them and worth considering if you have these symptoms.

Here’s another test: Go to sleep a half hour earlier than normal for several days. If that makes you wake up a half hour earlier than normal, you are probably getting enough sleep. If you sleep just as late as before despite getting to sleep earlier, you needed the extra time.

Doing What Needs to be Done

So let’s say you’ve recognized yourself in this article and you agree you need more sleep for optimal performance, but you have a full time job, maybe a spouse and some kids who want your attention and you still have serious goals in bike racing. What to do? If you are undersleeping, you need to get more sleep to reach your racing goals, period. Getting on track with your sleep hours may mean tossing the idea that you are sticking strictly to the high-volume training plan you laid out a few months ago. Accept it.

Sleep deprivation impairs mental as well as physical performance. Catching up on sleep makes you able to work more efficiently, perhaps allowing you to finish in less time. See if this story might have relevance for you: When I was a new father, I found myself staying up late to finish answering business email night after night. I found myself staying up later and later to get the work done until finally I was tired enough that I said, “no more”. I knew that staying up to answer business email was impairing my health and I wasn’t getting it all done anyway, so I decided not to do it anymore but to go to bed at a reasonable time to get a whole night’s sleep, or as much as I could with nighttime feedings and diaper changes to take care of. I was afraid that turning off the email might lose me clients or other opportunities, but I decided that my health was more important. For the first couple of days, the email pile grew. It was scary. But by about the third day, as I was close to caught up on sleep, I suddenly found I could plow through a lot more email in a lot less time. Rather than continuing to grow, the pile of unanswered mail shrank. I’ve experimented a few times since and the results are consistent: I can stay up one night to answer email without impairment, but if I stay up two or more nights in a row, my efficiency drops and the work starts to back up again.

Better sleeping makes you better able to plan rather than react in the moment. That means you do smart things, like figure out how to commute by bike, or get all the groceries on the first trip so you don’t need to make a second one.  Adequate sleep strengthens your focus and willpower so you can decide to turn off the TV or not complete the Sudoku before bed. Making good decisions about sleep in a very deliberate way for a few days can make it much easier to keep making those better decisions for months afterward. Those kinds of good decisions allow you to do more training without skimping on sleep.

I’ve seen many cases where riders cut back on training hours to get more sleep hours as naps or night sleep for a couple of weeks, and were so transformed by the added sleep that they were then able to return to high volume training, still getting their work done but feeling much better and getting much faster as a result.

Tips for the Sleep Deprived

I actually require my most sleep-deprived clients to get adequate sleep to be allowed to train. Instructions for the day might say something like, “Endurance Spin with Jumps-3 hours if >8 hours sleep, else 40 minutes Active Rest Ride.” Reducing the day’s training to a 40- or 60-minute easy spin if you haven’t gotten at least 8 hours sleep in the previous 24 hours is a good rule for almost everyone since sleep deprived riders don’t benefit from more training than they can recover from, a shorter ride allows for more sleep, and riders who love riding their bikes will be motivated to sleep more if they are not allowed to ride long otherwise.

Sleep quality is as important as sleep hours. Many things can impair sleep quality. Here are some ideas to help deal with some of them:

  1. Noisy neighbors or household: Ear plugs and/or white noise source such as a fan or one of those things that makes waterfall or wave noise all night.
  2. Waking to pee: Hydrate well all day long but stop drinking any fluids a few hours before bed so you can have one last bathroom visit before sleep and make it to the morning without needing another.
  3. Too warm or too cold: Adjust clothing appropriately before bed and if nighttime temperatures are likely to change, set up to deal with them without fully waking up so you won’t be tempted to sleep poorly rather than pull up a cover or push one down.
  4. Work stress: Before bed write down everything you need to do the next day so you can avoid thinking about it while you are trying to fall asleep.
  5. Restless or sore legs after hard training: Massage and stretching, possibly ice-massage, before bed.
  6. Anxiety about waking in time for the race: Set at least two alarms, one of which should be battery powered, like a phone or watch.
  7. Waking in the wee hours after alcohol ingestion: Don’t drink alcohol for as many hours before bed as it takes.

Can You See the Elephant?

If you see the signs of undersleeping in yourself, you need more sleep. Getting enough sleep will be the single most important thing you can do to improve your performance, better than getting a power meter or new wheels, better than increasing training hours or doing intervals, better even than working with a coach, unless that coach gets you to sleep more. Learning how to get enough sleep while still taking care of other responsibilities and training can be a real challenge, but it’s one you have to master if you are to succeed in bike racing.

(This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine)

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching routinely help their clients address such issues as sleep need, nutrition and other things that affect recovery. These things are at least as important as how one training. That’s why we say that if your coach is just giving you a training plan, he or she is not really coaching you. To inquire about working with Scott or any of the other Wenzel Coaches, call 503-233-4346 or visit us on the web at To ask Scott a question directly, submit it at

One comment on “The Elephant in the Room: Getting Enough Sleep
  1. Alex says:

    Great article!