In this episode of ‘The Athletes Compass’ (part 2 of 3 on recovery), hosts Paul Warloski, Marjaana Rakai, and Dr. Paul Laursen delve into the critical role of sleep in recovery for athletes. The episode kicks off with a discussion on how sleep affects various aspects of recovery, such as memory consolidation, hormonal regulation, and tissue repair. Marjaana Rakai shares her personal experiences, highlighting the challenges of sleep deprivation and its impact on mental health. The episode also offers practical advice on improving sleep quality, the importance of consistent sleep routines, and the role of technology in monitoring sleep. Finally, the episode wraps up with key takeaways on optimizing sleep for better athletic performance and overall well-being.
Key Issues Discussed:
- Significance of Sleep in Athletic Recovery
- Personal Experiences with Sleep Challenges
- Strategies for Enhancing Sleep Quality
- Impact of Exercise Timing on Sleep
- Use of Technology for Sleep Monitoring
- Closing Takeaways on Sleep Importance
Hello and welcome to episode 6 of the Athletes Compass where we navigate training, fitness, and health for everyday athletes. This week we are again talking about recovery, but this time we're talking about the most important part of recovery, one of my favorite topics, sleep. I know the one thing that inevitably triggers a yellow reaction from HRV4Training for me is a poor night's sleep.
What does the research say about sleep for recovery? How does sleep impact the recovery for everyday endurance athletes?
Yeah, well, it's a good thing we're starting on this one early and we've got the whole podcast to cover it. But because there's a lot, you know, I think in the olden days, we really didn't know much about sleep at all. And it was just a real unknown. And we all thought we could do without it. And you could wear like this badge of honor if you could go without sleep. And, you know,
I think this culture still exists in a lot of executive performance type places. Maybe New York Stock Exchange or something like that kind of a culture would exist. Doesn't work so well for athletes as they will find out. Again, I go to Athletica Ambassador, Alistair Brownlee, who said this on the Training Science Podcast
first episode we did and it was, you know, I think he said sleep was, you know, or sorry, recovery was 90% sleep, 9% nutrition, 1% everything else. So it was all about that for Alistair. And he attributes his multiple gold medals to the fact that he was a world champion sleeper. So yeah, so let's go through some of the various different things that you can benefit.
First of all is, again, I think of the motto of Athletica, is train smarter, not harder. Well, it's actually, it's like the mind. Your mind will be a more efficient mind. Like your memory consolidation is one of the key things that happens when you get a good night's sleep. Making important and the right decisions about how you train and how you go about your life strategically.
is more important than I think we think. So it puts you on that right path, that right road to Rome. Hormonal regulation is another big one, right? In the last episode, we spoke about, we showed the viewer my Wim Hof, cold water immersion method, right? One of the key things that I needed to do for myself was to get my circadian rhythm back
in check. And I know that by doing that Wim Hof method, that's like a reset for me. And my hormonal regulation will fall back into sync because of the fact that it's going to assist me to get that, you know, get a full night's sleep. Everything kind of goes back into that rest and digest, full parasympathetic mode. This is what we're monitoring when we're monitoring our HRV.
Remember, we spoke in the last podcast about how all of these trackers now are actually measuring your overnight average heart rate variability as opposed to just your morning heart rate variability. And that's because we can actually, like what's going on while you sleep, the average of that parasympathetic activity while you sleep is so vital. And it's telling us that, you know, your hormone, your hormonal regulation is getting synced while you sleep.
Tissue growth and repair, we spoke about that when we talked about the general adaptation syndrome. We need time for all of that to occur, but certainly sleep enhances the tissue growth and repair. Energy restoration as well, right? Like you're all of the, you know, we need glycogen back into the muscle and sleep is instrumental in pushing that, you know, those sugars that we consume during the day, the carbohydrates,
Whether we're on a keto diet or a high carb diet, doesn't matter, but we're either one, we're doing things where we're actually building back the energy resources that we need as athletes to perform our exercise. And then I guess the last two big ones are immune function. We need to be healthy and reducing inflammation. Like those are probably the key ones.
So yeah, just, yeah. There's actually even more, like there's like the mood. We talked about in the last podcast, the mood, right? Like if you get a good night's sleep, you're gonna be less moody for your partner. And yeah, and certainly, you know, stress reduction and muscle recovery. So all these things.
Marjaana Rakai (05:32.443)
Marjaana Rakai (05:42.443)
I want to add mental health there. I started reading this Why We Sleep book based on the recommendation prof and Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep. I have just started it. So, but the first, just the first chapter, first page, uh, it was a aha moment for me because, uh, as a mom of three little ones, I was
Yep, Matthew Walker.
Marjaana Rakai (06:12.039)
single parenting part-time because hubby was across the world. We lived in different countries. We actually moved continents, three continents in three years. And I honestly don't know how I survived because my kids were not good sleepers. And when I read this book, I'm like...
Because I had postpartum depression, I was anxious, I was so drained. And I didn't realize that the sleep was probably majority of the reason, just because it was so broken up and I got it so little of it. So I would definitely add the importance of sleep for mom athletes, because I know it's so difficult to get a good night's sleep with little ones.
Marjaana, can I ask you, again, based on your extensive experience, three children, what were some of your techniques to be able to get a little bit of sleep here and there? Because I'm sure it wasn't probably as perfect as Sir Matthew Walker would recommend in his book there.
Marjaana Rakai (07:28.171)
No, yeah, so I have to go really deep into the bin. I was actually suicidal. And yeah, I was sitting, at the time we were living in St. John's in Newfoundland and if you've ever been there, it's a gorgeous nature. But I wasn't well, I wasn't sleeping. My husband worked in South Korea at the time.
and he would come home for like three weeks, work in the office. So I never got a break. And I was so tired that I just couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. So, but I've always been active. So I had to go when he came home, I had to get out of the house. That was glorious. And I went for a hike because I didn't have energy for running. And one day.
Marjaana Rakai (08:27.115)
I was sitting by the cliff and I just wanted to jump because I didn't have a way to see my life getting any better because the kids were so small and somebody needed me all the time. So I started running. I somehow just thought of my kids asking their dad, where's mom, when is mom coming home? It got me up and I started running away from the cliffs. So the trail would go...
away from the cliffs and then back to the cliffs. So every time the trail went towards the cliffs, I would walk very carefully, not to jump. And then when the trail turned away from the cliffs, I started running. And eventually I just kept running because you know the 15 minutes, you start feeling good. And I just kept running. At that, like that day, I think I ran total like 9Ks and I got home and I was like, okay, I'm ready to face this reality again.
And that really changed my life. That's why I call myself Tired Mom Runs. And I say that running saved my life because it really did. And even today, like this is almost 10 years ago, I feel, you know, suicidal thoughts have certain shame to it, but I feel emotional and a little bit ashamed to talk about it. But I think it's important that I share this story because that kind of...
kickstarted my priorities to sleep. So I started finding ways where I could improve my sleep. That was the first thing, because I couldn't control when the kids would wake up. So what I did was I realized I'm way too much on this device. So I would leave it in the kitchen for overnight charge.
Marjaana Rakai (10:25.859)
Usually before I would have it by my bedside table. When I was breastfeeding, I would scroll in the middle of the night. Then I would struggle to go back to sleep, obviously. But I was so tired that I felt like I needed the light and the brain activity to read something. To stay awake while I was breastfeeding. The first step was to put the...
the phone away for overnight. And it was a hard stop at seven o'clock. And then other things were, I think I mentioned the bribing the kid. Just stay asleep, don't wake me up. And the second was in the morning.
instead of waking up to kids waking me up, I had to kind of sacrifice the deep REM sleep in the late morning. And I started to use just the watch to wake me up 15 minutes before I estimated any of the kids would wake up and I would meditate. Get my coffee in and I would meditate. So I felt like I was in a good...
place to start the day, which was, you know, I was single parenting, so it would take a while. And then nap time, I instead of doing something, cleaning the house or actually when my first one was born, I was, because I speak Norwegian, Finnish and English, I was working as a translator and I was writing articles about exercise.
couldn't do that very long because my first one didn't sleep. So instead of trying to maximize the time that they were napping, I actually went to sleep. I tried to nap too. So then I would put on the babysitter, Netflix, and I would nap on the couch while the kids watched Netflix for an hour. And eventually that nap turned into a bike session. So...
Marjaana Rakai (12:51.519)
When I was home alone with three kids, I would put the Netflix on for an hour and I would bike in the garage. So thank you, Netflix. Yeah. But yeah, I realized that sleep is everything. Everything.
We'll take your sponsorship money now.
Yeah, because I mean, thank you for sharing that, being vulnerable with that, Marjaana, but that's really your story describes, you know, and I think more people can relate than they'd like to admit, but it describes, you know, how bad it can get in the mind when we are, you know, hormonally dysregulated. And that's...
You know, this is the culmination of repeated days of not getting any sleep. This is sleep deprivation, classic sleep deprivation. And that happens in athletes, business execs, and tired moms, and many other populations out there that people would relate to, I'm sure.
Marjaana Rakai (13:49.067)
Marjaana Rakai (13:53.77)
Marjaana Rakai (13:58.355)
tired dads. Our first one was horrible sleeper so he would only sleep like a 60 minute 90 minute and I would take the first shift and then my husband who would already wake up really early and go to work like 5 a.m. he would take after 2 o'clock he would stay awake so it wasn't easy for him either
Marjaana Rakai (14:24.527)
somehow we get it through. Yep.
Somehow we got through this, so yeah, well done.
Marjaana, you described a couple things where you were able to, and by the way, speaking of Netflix, we were watching a Netflix show and the mom in the show did the bribery thing that you described. And it was like, I know exactly what you're talking about. That was awesome. So you're not alone in tired moms doing whatever they need to do to get sleep. So you worked with your kids.
Marjaana Rakai (14:42.089)
Marjaana Rakai (14:46.135)
I'm going to go ahead and close the video.
adapt to their habits and get sleep when you can? Do you think that there was a magic number of hours? Do you think the quality of sleep was more important? What do you think mattered more to you?
Marjaana Rakai (15:14.963)
I think the quality of sleep. I noticed right away when I left the phone outside the bedroom that my quality of sleep, I swear these things emit some kind of signal to our brains that messes up with our sleep. So I think the quality of sleep is super important. I don't actually know about the quantity and maybe the prof can talk about the quantity of sleep.
It's somewhat individual. I used to live next door to a mom who only slept like four hours and functioned well. I could not do it. So I find like eight to nine hours for me is good. And lately I've tried to prioritize sleep longer. So I get at least eight hours because I used to just...
function with 7 thinking that's enough but it's not.
Paul, is there something to the idea of sleeping in hour and a half chunks? Um, because that's kind of the natural circadian rhythm. So if you sleep, you know, three or six or nine hours, that's kind of. Or seven and a half, that's kind of the ideal, or is that just common, erroneous knowledge?
No, no, I think that's, yeah, I think like the book that Marjaana is mentioning, I think it describes the sleep cycle and we are, it generally are these 90 minute cycles that we go through and, you know, I think, you know, going down all the various different phases, one, two, three, four, REM, and you will go through these various different phases in that 90 minute period and the amount of all those phases that you go through.
changes throughout the night. And again, with an emphasis in deep in the beginning to the REM memory consolidation in the latter ones. So, I think, I mean, their context is everything, right, Paul? So it's like, you know, if you're in Marjaana's case and you can only get 90 minutes, then great. I guess that might be potentially ideal for a period of time of sleep. But
Ideally, we want a combination of quality first and quantity second. And yeah, quality ultimately means, with the exception of using sleeping pills, which don't give quality, that's the problem with them. They just give you a comatose situation, but you don't actually go through the various different phases of restoration. You want to be getting that, you know, you'd want to sleep right through the night.
that's unaided, that's quality sleep in a simple outcome. And then the hours really range from seven to the healthy adult is probably seven to a teenager that might be 10 or 11. And then athletes is probably closer to the 10 as well. If it's a high volume training athlete.
possibly up to nine hours with a 30 minute nap in the middle of the day tends to be optimal. So a lot of contextual stuff there, but those are good targets for a lot of us.
You know, we've, we've all as athletes had challenges sleeping before races or big events. We've all had challenges where we come home. I know when I was teaching middle school, I would come home after, after all day, get on the bike, end up having a late dinner and going to sleep right away. But you know, sleep was never, it never came right away.
for everyday endurance athletes, how do you manage that?
Yeah, it's not easy first of all, because so many times we are hooked into a certain context that feels a little bit out of our control, initially at least, and that might be work, that might be adding with a commute, that might be family obligations. Marjaana was speaking before, and she's been all over the weekend following her kids around playing baseball, right? And it's like, these are the things that we're...
you know, a little bit tied into. But yeah, there's, and in every single context, you have to sort of think, well, what's optimal? Is, you know, is it better for me to, you know, you just mentioned you've taught middle school and then you jumped on the trainer that possibly pushed your stressors later into the night and affected your ability to get to sleep. So...
I'm not sure how late it was, but potentially it could have been, and maybe that was optimal if you kept it L1, L2, and it calmed you down. That is definitely one of the key things you want to do. You want calming influences before you sleep, so that you can get into that mode. If it starts to be five, six, seven at night depending on when you go to sleep, you need to start thinking in your mind about,
how high intensity the exercise is because you don't want this big bolus, sorry, dose of catecholamines, cortisol, stress hormones, all these different hormones because that's going to delay when you can fall asleep. Like you said, Paul, you're still gonna be wired. So, you know, is it better to have a bath or maybe the pool's still open and you can instead do a light swim.
it's context specific. And maybe the better solution is to go, to have that higher intensity workout, maybe in the morning, if as opposed to right there at six, seven o'clock at night, that's probably not the time you wanna be doing HIIT to ramp yourself up a little bit more. Marjaana probably has some add-ons here for this as well.
Marjaana Rakai (21:43.095)
Yeah, I've noticed that I cannot do late swim session. Typically, like master swim group have evening session, morning session, sometimes even lunch instance. I've noticed that the same problem with me that I can't fall asleep if I do their late swim session. And I know a lot of athletes do they wake up for example four o'clock to
go to the early swim sessions or they'll wake up super early to do their bike sessions because they have work or because there's environmental factors like heat in Dubai. A lot of people they start 4.30 or 5 o'clock and my thinking, like I've done those sessions because that was the only time that you could go if you didn't want a bike in 40 degree heat.
Thanks for watching!
Marjaana Rakai (22:43.135)
So because we wake up so early and we're gonna miss that late morning REM sleep, what, how bad is it for our overall stress levels that we're losing on those hours?
How much did you miss? How much did you wind up sleeping?
Marjaana Rakai (23:11.335)
Well, like, instead of waking up at four, I would probably wake up at six, so two hours. Like that one last 90 minutes.
Yeah. So what was your total amount of sleep? Like did you get six or seven hours or?
Marjaana Rakai (23:27.007)
Probably went to about a nine, so seven, yeah. Yeah.
Seven's okay. So you can usually get by. Most adults can still get by with seven. Again, to the Matt Walker book, we build up all of this sleep debt. So this is one of the things we have to also be careful of napping too much in the middle of the day. That removes sleep debt and it prevents you from getting a good quality sleep.
So sometimes you actually have to go even without napping to get that. So that when you fall asleep, you get that seven hours. I noticed, I was reflecting on Dan Plews' recent world record for the age groupers going under eight hours in Ironman, California. And in the article that he writes about, he was getting seven hours, but by the end of his day,
Marjaana Rakai (24:02.368)
He was so tired, like as soon as his head hit the pillow, like out, right? So, and then, but he was still, I guess it would have been, yeah, out by about 9.30, up by 4.30, and then he's swimming, yeah, he would always swim at five. So, but he always got his seven hours kind of thing there, but it was seven hours of quality sleep.
So maybe not ideal, but he's also, you know, he's also working a full-time job at the same time as doing that. He, you know, truly is a, the, you know, people comment that he's, you know, he should be a professional, but yeah, he could be a professional, but he's chosen to do this in alongside his work week. So he's still working 40 hours a week, but that's how he gets in his 20 hours of training. And that's one of the, one of his sort of strategies there. So.
I don't know if that answers your question. There's lots of ways. Everyone has their own sort of context, but if you can gap together seven hours of quality sleep, you're probably going to be recovered and have adequate mood during the day. Maybe not perfect, but not bad. What do you think, Marjaana, in your experience?
Marjaana Rakai (25:49.279)
Well, because I can nap during the day on those days that I wake up super early, I will nap. I will make sure that I nap.
I think that's great.
Marjaana Rakai (26:01.873)
within the 12 and 2 o'clock window.
Yeah, perfect, perfect. And again, we should specify as well. I think we mentioned it before on one of the previous podcasts, but remember that we do have this slight dip after lunchtime where your core temperature, yeah, it just dips a little bit. And that dip in core temperature is associated with those feelings of fatigue, tiredness. And you can leverage that fatigue and have that siesta, the natural.
natural siesta that is in many Spanish cultures, for example, where they will sleep in the in the middle of the day. That's in all of us and we can engage in that as well as you do, Marjaana. So yeah, and they say really that window can be anything depending on what you need. As short as 10 to I think as long as 90, a full sleep cycle in someone like you know
of our professionals that might be training 25 hours plus a week, they might have a full 90 minute segment there.
Marjaana Rakai (27:12.119)
I can definitely feel the after lunch dip. And then usually I've been experimenting a little bit, but I've been napping. Or if I feel pretty good and it's an easy day of training or not much heat, then I might just sit down with the coffee and read. So I put a timer on for half an hour and I do my reading. And that I find that it usually energizes me.
Marjaana Rakai (27:41.291)
But I've also experimented with adding a training session. During, when I start to feel that slump, I'm jumping on the bike or go for a walk with the dog. And I have to say, getting a dog last year has been so good for my recovery because I'm constantly walking. Like I didn't realize how good walking really is.
Yes. Yeah, yes.
Marjaana Rakai (28:08.727)
for your recovery before I got the dog. So everybody go get a dog. Rescue dog. Yep.
Well, just walking in general is so underrated. And I think I might've mentioned this before, but I prescribed walking to a lot of my athletes and they look at me like I'm funny. But it's, again, this is, you ask athletic ambassador Andy Boecherer who won Ironman Lanzarote, and the win was associated with almost daily walk.
everywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. He would supplement these walks all around his training. There's just so many good things that go on when you walk. It's just like humans were meant to walk. Yeah, there's probably immune function, fat metabolism, lowered inflammation, all these various different factors happen.
just the same as sleep. Lo and behold, another human activity that's ideal is good for our recovery, right?
Marjaana Rakai (29:19.743)
I don't know if there's any science behind it, but I feel we, as a family, we take evening walks, of course, with the dog. But even before we got our rescue dog, we would go for an evening walk after supper. And I swear the kids sleep so much better after.
Yeah, totally. Yeah, it's a super healthy practice for all of us to do. It gets you out of your house, right? It gets you out away from technology ultimately. It gets you out in the environment. Yeah, it's so good.
So is there any, you know, I asked this question in the last episode about monitoring HRV and monitoring recovery, but a lot of those apps will help you monitor your sleep. And is there any value in those? I mean, are they helpful to us at all?
I think just like we said with some of the HRV monitoring stuff, Paul, it can be important for a phase. Again, in the quantified self context, let's learn something. And I think if we look to some of the validity and reliability studies, they're not perfect compared to a high-end sleep tracker. But they're good.
good enough to get you insight into what you want to might, you know, discover about yourself, right? And what, you know, for those of you that haven't had an experience using some of these wearables, you might actually get to see the different phases of sleep that you go through and you can, you know, get estimations on how much deep sleep versus REM sleep that you actually get. And yeah, and there's many that do this from Garmin to Oura to WHOOP
Et cetera. So it's, they're not the be all end all, but there, they can be, can be useful. And, and again, it'll probably relates also to the personality type too. If, do you, do you feel that you would benefit from this? Do you feel like you might need this then go for it. And, and it could be again, a good conversation starter with you and your coach.
Marjaana, you talked about this last week or the week before about what you'd recommend to your athletes about how to set up their room for optimal sleep. So what would you say about that? What would be some key things for that?
Marjaana Rakai (31:49.035)
First of all, leave the phone, screen, TV away from bedroom. Keep it dark. I'm very light sensitive. Like I want it pitch black. Even, you know, turning the blinds the right way has been an issue with my husband. Like I want it like them pointing upwards so that they don't, if there's any light outside, they point down. So we're like, I'm constantly turning them other way.
Um, really nice quality bed sheets, you know, like when you slide in there, it just feels so nice and keeping them clean. Like that's one of the key things that you can do. Like it's an investment, right? Um, and I think, um, the quality, like the finding a mattress that works for you. And this can be also, also different from your husband or wife.
Marjaana Rakai (32:47.783)
what they enjoy. But yeah, like you know when you go to a hotel, you go on a travel and you sleep on these horrible beds and then you come home and you're just like, oh this feels so good, I'm glad to be home. Yeah, so quality bedding, keep it dark and cool. I'm particular on the coolness
Yeah. Ha ha ha.
same. Yeah, for sure. So yeah, I think it's just to add on your point about the darkness, Marjaana. I believe it's only one lux, which is the unit of light can disrupt sleep. So that's like right down to the bottom. Like it's, you're, you definitely want to work towards having that super, super dark room. Use an eye shade as well if you, if you can't achieve that. So.
You should be able to get a dark room anywhere if you use an eye shade. The other thing is the consistency of the sleep schedule is so important. Remember that if we always go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, apparently that is one of the things, again, the book that Marjaana was quoting with Matt Walker, that's the key thing too, right? So it needs to be consistent. Well ventilated room as well.
cleanliness of the sheets, comfort of the sheets, the overall temperature is individual, but generally cooler because you want that lowered core temperature, right? Before your core temperature of your body actually starts the whole circadian process and starts you going to sleep. That's actually what happens there. Yeah, the other exercise is key, right? We're all about exercise on this podcast. So yeah, getting...
getting that activity is really key. Managing the stress as we spoke, we've been speaking about everywhere. So, like Paul was mentioning where he's wound up from a big day of work. Well, how can we, could we take a warm bath or a cold shower or whatever it might be, right? Like what sort of, how can we calm ourselves before? One of the things I do, even I time my yoga practice actually.
just a couple sort of stretching mobility yoga poses as I'm kind of relaxing and getting ready for sleep. And I also will always read just a hardcover book as well. Like you, Marjaana, I keep my phone totally out of the room there as well. And then we spoke about alcohol and food, right? So limit alcohol, try to have, I think Matt will tell us that zero is the best one
10 a.m. is the 10 a.m. alcohol time is probably the only time that it might be out of your system. But yeah that's uh yeah those are those are some of the some of the key things.
Marjaana Rakai (35:57.503)
I also think some people like, what is it called, white sound, white noise. Having lived in so many different places that we've required AC, coming from the most quiet place in North Finland where you would not hear a thing, it's so weird how it affects falling asleep.
white noise. Yep.
Marjaana Rakai (36:25.159)
I feel like when every time I go to North Finland and it's so quiet I sleep so soundly but falling asleep where I hear the AC kind of hum it's easier especially when you travel so you travel from an AC controlled environment to total quietness it's just like what is happening?
Marjaana Rakai (36:52.447)
But I find also like doing a few breathing exercises, like box breathing right before. If I have the monkey brain, like a lot of squirrels jumping in my head, I find like the box breathing, like four or five breaths in, holding it for five, count to five, and then breathing out a little bit longer, and then holding the breath at the bottom, that just helps quiet the mind and falling asleep better.
Yeah, same, same box breathing is definitely where it's at. Yeah, a lot of CO2 control and all of that as well, which is...
I'm sleepy now. So here are my three takeaways from our conversation today. Obviously, number one is sleep is the most important recovery tool. There is no way to shortcut it. You sleep seven to 10 hours, you know, that's the ideal. Then you wake up feeling rested and ready to take on the world. Number two, take some steps to ensure good sleep.
Marjaana Rakai (37:36.429)
by not using screens, avoiding alcohol, leaving your phone outside the room, consistency of sleep times and wake up times, keeping your room clean and dark and getting some good bedding and sheets. And number three, one of the things that is always a challenge for me that I always work on is having some calming influences before you sleep, reading or meditation, maybe some gentle yoga, avoiding
HIIT workouts at night right before you go to sleep so that you can feel a sense of calm. I like to read before I go to sleep and try to be as calmed and rested before you fall asleep to help you fall asleep and get good sleep.
So that's all for this week. Thanks for listening. Join us next week when we talk about other tools for recovery. For Marjaana Rakai, Dr. Paul Laursen I'm Paul Warloski, and this has been the Athletes Compass Podcast. Thanks.