Sleep your way to the top: why better sleep will make you a better rider

Enduring broken sleep or sleepless nights will impact your cycling performance and your health. It’s why WorldTour teams pay so much attention to the shut-eye. And you should, too… 

Team Sky’s marginal gains was grounded on innovations in training periodisation, fat metabolism and aerodynamics. But arguably it was their focus on sleep that had the greatest impact, with Luke Rowe oft quoted as saying the rider who wins the Tour is the rider who sleeps best. To that end, Team Sky became famous, or infamous, for replacing hotels’ mattresses and pillows for their own with a diligent employee charged with driving a sleep-hygiene van around France.

Forward to the present day and the (commercial) relationship between the WorldTour and sleep is stronger and more refreshed than ever. As a sleepy snapshot, mattress and pillow manufacturer Latexco sponsors Quick-Step, Trek-Segafredo’s hooked up with Dorelan Reactive, while the likes of Annemiek van Vleuten and crew at Movistar even have their own pillow range thanks to SleepAngel. Jumbo-Visma’s taken things one sleepwalking step further by signing a deal with Box Altitude, an Australian company specialising in the development of altitude and sleep systems.

It's small wonder that such an exhausting sport attracts businesses looking to maximise shut-eye with a company closer to home getting in on the act, too. We work with Alpecin-Deceuninck, says founder of Manchester start-up Levitex James Leinhardt. We provide the Alpecin team with sleep consultations to better understand the riders’ specific needs as each one will be very different. From this, we’re able to provide solutions in terms of sleep hygiene, sleeping position and sleep surface. Some riders have mattresses and pillows in their own home and some have pillows that travel with them during the race season.”

Perfect positioning

The heart of Levitex’s offering is that pillow with Levitex’s foam pillow coming in four sizes. No one pillow size fits all,” says Leinhardt. “We match the athlete with a pillow based on their individual shape and size, taking into account the position they tend to sleep in most. For any athlete we work with that sleep on their front, we give them the tools to transition to a more optimal lying position. Sleeping on your front is a major no-no. It has a terrible impact on your spine health and affects your overall sleep quality, especially when daytime postures such as that of a rider are already normally poor.”

Levitex offers pillows based on height and whether you sleep on your side or back (more here). In theory, if 1.84m tall and 75kg powerhouse Mathieu van der Poel kips on his side, he’d sleep on the 14cm-deep extra-large pillow, whereas diminutive teammate Jakub Mareczko (67kg and 1.69m tall) might go for the 8cm-deep small version if he passes out on his back. This is speculative, of course, as Levitex understandably don’t disclose personal rider information but it does highlight that many of us – this writer included – suffer from insufficient sleep and do little about it. Which is crazy when you see the numbers. “On average we work for 13 years, exercise for one year and sleep for 26,” says Leinhardt. “We address the biggest period of time in a person’s/athlete’s life to help improve their overall health and wellbeing.”

Read more: One hour of sleep, hallucinations, and the Thursday Murder Club -  how Cynthia Frazier conquered the Across Andes ultra-race

For cyclists of all levels, who spend hours in a crouched position, there are sport-specific issues that can be addressed and hopefully eradicated, or at least alleviated, with more bespoke sleep hygiene practices. Back to Leinhardt. “We’ve found a significant prevalence of sacroiliac (lower-back) joint pain across all the athletes we work with. In cycling, so much focus is applied to aerodynamics – the more you bend over the handlebars, the better. Due to this, addressing your night-time posture is key to fighting the poor daytime posture.

“Your pillow, like your bike, is not one size fits all, and we recommend you check in advance the hotel mattresses/pillows you’re sleeping on ahead of your trip. One of our athletes was flown home with back spasms from a race in Flanders. Following three clinical assessments it was established that the cause of his debilitating lower back pain was a hotel mattress made from cotton wool!”

Performance detriment

So, sleep matters, albeit you only really notice how much when you don’t get enough, which is why customised pillows and toppers are omnipresent at multi-stage races. Which begs the question: how does a rider’s sleep quality hold up when racing in the mountains day after debilitating day? It’s a topic addressed by a team of researchers led by James Hopker of the University of Kent, who charted the sleep quality of five riders from Italian Pro Continental outfit Androni – Sidermec during the five-stage Vuelta a Andalucia, 2019. Each rider kept a sleep diary throughout the race, while an actigraph watch – the gold standard, certainly against some smartwatches – racked up the data.

The race comprised a mountain, flat, time trial and two final mountain stages with “sleep efficiency” suffering as the race rolled on. Although the riders’ time in bed didn’t deviate from the 8.5-9hr norm, the quality of their sleep deteriorated. “This data emphasises the importance for athletes and coaches of sleep hygiene routines to optimise the quality and quantity of sleep,” the authors concluded. “This includes a consistent bedtime, control room temperature, avoid caffeine consumption 4- 5hrs before going to bed and reduce the use of electronic equipment prior to bedtime.”

Not using a phone or tablet before bed will aid with better sleep (Image: James Startt)

The authors didn’t measure the impact of insufficient sleep on the riders’ performance but others have. “Insufficient sleep, especially over a period of time, results in decreased speed and power output,” explains Shona Halson. Halson’s a leading expert on sleep in athletes and was the head recovery physiologist at the noted Australian Institute of Sport from 2002 to 2018. “It also leads to reduced reaction times, lowers your immune system and is detrimental to cognitive ability, which is important when it comes to factors like pacing.”

Hormonal changes

Lack of sleep also impacts your hormonal, and performance, profile. Let’s start with a hormone that the likes of Lance Armstrong and co knew a fair bit about: human growth hormone (HGH). While it can be injected in synthetic form, your body naturally produces bucket loads of the stuff from the brain’s pituitary gland, paradoxically when you’re either exercising hard of sleeping.

HGH works its regenerative magic by repairing and rebuilding muscles by stimulating the liver and other tissues to make a protein called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). If you don’t enjoy enough sleep, HGH production’s reduced meaning restricted muscle growth. (As a far-from-festive sidenote, alcohol’s known to inhibit the secretion of HGH with a 1980 study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology Metabolism showing by as much as 25%.)

“Sleep can also affect your eating habits,” says Halson. Again, this is down to hormones, specifically the ones that control eating behaviour. For instance, rising levels of a hormone called ghrelin signal that it’s time to start eating, while increased levels of the hormone leptin tell you that you’re full. A German study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, showed that just one night’s broken sleep significantly raises ghrelin levels, explaining why you crave a pipe of Pringles when you’re tired. They also showed that two nights or more poor sleep reduces leptin levels. In short, you can see why decreased sleep’s associated with increased weight.

Lack of sleep also affects your perception of how hard a session is. Why isn’t fully understood but Mindy Engle-Friedman of the University of New York suggested it was down to your mind determining whether it has the resources needed to complete a task, deciding whether those resources are available, or whether those resources need to be used or conserved for tasks of higher priority. Essentially, says Engle-Friedman, sleep deprivation alters the perception of this resource distribution and makes things tougher.

Throw in higher stress levels, irritation and general discontent and you can see why sleep’s not only important to cycling performance but how you cope with the everyday, too.

Fall into the rhythm

How much sleep you need is again an individual thing but 7-8hrs is the broad advice. But you’ll know more about you and your needs by understanding your circadian rhythms as there’s scientific evidence that shows its impact on training. Studies have shown that measures of strength and power are greater in the afternoon or evening than in the morning. This coincides with hormonal changes that raise body temperature, which then increase factors such as how fast nerves conduct signals and pace of blood flow. Endurance performance seems to be less affected by time of day than power.

So that’s it, a morning S&C session followed by an aerobic rider at, well, any time? Not necessarily. Your chronotype’s essentially your sleep characteristic and is why some cyclists feel more awake in the morning and some in the afternoon. This is known as the ‘lark’ and ‘owl’ syndrome and derives from circadian rhythms not strictly adhering to the 24hr clock; in fact, they vary slightly by individual with about an hour’s range from 23.8hrs to 24.8hrs.

Are you a lark or an owl? (Imaged: Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Whether someone adheres to a ‘slow’ or ‘fast’ clock relates to evening (owl) or morning (lark) types with reportedly 10% qualifying as morning people, 20% night owls and the rest in the large spectrum in-between. That time shift from 23.8hrs to 24hrs doesn’t sound big but it has huge repercussions with one study showing evening types can see performance levels drop by as much as 26% when training in the morning compared to the evening. It’s why some suggest morning larks peak around noon, in-betweeners around 4pm and night owls around 8pm. You’ll probably know which you are but to add some empirical meat on the bone, undertake a self-assessment with the Morningness-Eveningness questionnaire.

Better sleep hygiene

So, if you didn’t before, you now know if you’re a morning or evening person. But whichever you are, you still need to optimise sleep. So, what can be done to have you kipping like a tiger (15.8hrs a day, apparently!) and racing like a Lion (of Flanders, Johan Museeuw)? As Hopker and his team highlighted, banishing bedtime smartphone use is a proven win, as is a consistent bedtime and temperature regulation. There’s that caffeine avoidance, too, though while Hopker and crew mention avoidance 4-5hrs before bedtime, we’d probably abstain after lunch as caffeine does seem to linger somewhat.

“You could also drink milk,” says Halson. “It contains the protein tryptophan that’s been linked with better sleep, though the research is equivocal. On the other hand, it’s best to avoid high GI (glycaemic index) foods too close to bed, but also don’t go to bed too hungry or too full. We should also be careful with over-hydration pre-bed, which can result in bathroom visits during the night.”

Or if you’re a Grand Tour rider whose body’s hormonal profile’s a mess come week three, you could go for ketones. A study by Peter Hespel of Leuven University showed that ketones suppressed the levels of stress-induced hormone GDF-15 in athletes who are enduring extreme training day after day. This is a key hormone involved in appetite regulation with higher levels of GDF-15 concentration, symptomatic of a Grand Tour rider as Paris hones into view, killing the urge to eat. With ketones, this increase was suppressed, meaning the riders slept better.

Where does this leave us? We refer you back to our opening gambit about Team Sky and marginal gains. We were incorrect. Increasing your sleep quality and quantity is a maximal gain, ensuring you’ll line up for every (okay, most!) ride feeling physically and mentally sharp. We’ll all make resolutions to cycle stronger in 2023, with sportives signed up to and targets planned. You’ll have to rack up the consistent miles to reach your goals. But arguably, it’s what you do between rides that could make or break your season. Spend a little time assessing your own sleep practices could pay big dividends in 2023. Sleep easy, ride strong.

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