The athlete’s secret weapon

By Coach Matt Russ

Dec. 15, 2006 — Athletes are always looking for an edge. This may come in the form of a new supplement, gadget, piece of equipment or training methodology. But perhaps the most effective ergogenic aid is readily available and free; it is sleep.

First and foremost remember this; you are weaker after a workout. Your body has been broken down and it will take some time to repair itself. You will only benefit from the workout if this process is not upset or delayed. Your body releases a slew of hormones as you sleep, and one of the most important for recovery is human growth hormone. This wonder hormone, produced by the pituitary gland, repairs muscles and connective tissue, making them stronger and able to handle an even greater training stress load. It helps rejuvenate organs and bones as well. After a good night’s sleep you wake up refreshed physically and mentally, ready to resume the training process – and life!

Adapt and overcome
We are creatures of routine, and we like to follow plans and programs, but this can occasionally work against us. One of the first things I tell my athletes is that their plan will need to be adapted throughout the season. Adapting an athlete’s plan is as important as designing a great training plan. The pros can train, eat, sleep and repeat. For the rest of us, training is not our job; it is in addition to our job. It is easy to upset the training process, and we have to realize family and work responsibilities come first. There may be certain key workouts throughout your training week. If you need to increase rest and recovery, you can minimize lost training time by performing these workouts over other less critical ones. Don’t feel you must follow the letter of your plan no matter what. A good coach will understand this as well. Don’t stack missed workouts on the weekend either. This type of overreaching leaves you exhausted and burned out going into your next training week.

If you spent the night nursing a sick child, you have to realize that the three hours of sleep you got is not enough to train on. You may find your body sore and achy, and mentally you are in a fog. In this situation are more susceptible to accidents and injuries, and your immune system is suppressed. If you attempt to train hard, not only will your workout be substandard but you will further break your body down, requiring even more recovery. That means you are moving in the opposite direction you desire and are in fact are making yourself slower. Realize the body is a machine like any other and will reach a breaking point. Listen to your body. A day off from training and a good night of sleep will get you back in the game. This means resuming quality, effective training versus going through the motions of training.

Stress is stress
Your body reacts to physical and mental or emotional stress in a very similar manner. The hormone cortisol is released in both cases. You may have been sitting in your office chair all day, so the presumption is that you are ready physically for a work out. But if you have been under intense mental stress, you may find yourself exhausted instead. If you are experiencing a relationship issue and work is picking up the pace, your training may need to be modified. Training can help relieve stress but striking the balance may be tricky. Instead of attempting to achieve a specific training goal, you may want to work out at a base or recovery level until your stress levels return to a normal level. During these periods you are at a high risk for over-training, especially when sleep becomes compromised. If you can’t get to sleep, or are waking up at night, it is a good indication that your recovery bank is getting low.

How much is enough?
I have worked with athletes who can recover well on very little sleep, even after a high volume of training. Recovery is highly individual however, and these athletes are the exception. As training volume comes up you may need more sleep to facilitate recovery. I have found that seven hours is approximately the minimum for athletes, with some needing more than nine hours. Quality of sleep is important as well as quantity. If you are not hitting that deep REM sleep, recovery is hindered. A post-workout power nap can help recovery if you are not getting quite what you need, but keep it short (20 to 30 minutes) or you may not be able to get to sleep that evening.

There are some habits you can get into to improve your sleep. Take some quiet time before bed to meditate, relax and bring your stress levels down. Choose passive activities and avoid stimulation. Also avoid working out intensely within three hours of your bedtime, and keep it consistent. Keep your room dark; some studies show turning on a bright light disrupts sleep patterns.

Track it
Our coaching software allows us to track athletes’ sleep quality and quantity, as well as quantify stress metrics. When an athlete indicates they are in the red we can adjust training accordingly. A training diary is a good way to track of how you are reacting to your training and stress levels overall. Track your sleep amount and quality as well as your attitude toward training, stress levels and post-workout fatigue. This will often give you insight as to how much sleep you need. There are some common signs that you are not getting enough sleep.

* Irritability or short temper
* Daytime drowsiness or falling asleep during the day
* Loss of focus and concentration
* Forgetfulness or short term memory loss

I often consult with athletes that are training very hard, yet are chronically injured, burned out and not getting faster. Simply, they are not recovering. By reducing volume and increasing recovery we can sometimes drastically improve performance. The athlete that works the hardest and most consistently does not always progress. As athletes we train ourselves to push through pain, fatigue and to persevere, but this can work against us. Consider that you are in a race for recovery, not speed and sleep is your secret weapon. It is possible you can beat the competition by out-sleeping them.

Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes from around the country and internationally for over 10 years. He currently holds expert licenses from USA Triathlon, USA Cycling and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a freelance author, and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and Web sites. Visit for more information or e-mail him at

Best swim workout in a while

After a long break, I have now been swimming for about a month.  I’ve been focusing on base work with a lot of pulling and IM work.  Last night I was late starting my workout, but just in time for the Thursday night master’s workout.  Kyle had a great main set for us.  After a 1000y warm up we did 6 x 300.  My interval was 3:30 and here were my times:

I felt great and wasn’t fatigued until the last 150 on the last 300, which I was pushing pretty hard.  I was still saving some for the run I had planned right after swimming though.  I enjoyed swimming with the group, even though no one did the same send off as me, it was still fun to be swimming like the good ole days in college and with others.  My run consisted of a mile to the Y, then after swimming I ran for 10 minutes on the treadmill at 6:27 pace before running the mile home.  Everyone, (work, family, friends) seem to be getting sick so I’m doing my best to avoid any downtime by not over doing it..