The Necessity of Sleep for Muscle Recovery

Guest Publication by Stacey L. Nash

When it’s time to compete, you don’t want tired muscles or an injury to slow you down. Recovery time is absolutely necessary for peak performance. A day off of training should be worked into your schedule, but the most efficient recovery takes place while you sleep.

Getting Ready for a Run

The Muscle Recovery Process

The complexity and importance of sleep are hidden behind what looks like, a simple biological function. You lay down, go to sleep, and wake up to face another day. But, in that time, you experience four to six sleep cycles in which you pass through each of five sleep stages. The body needs each sleep stage for different reasons. And, though the amount of time you spend in each stage varies, they are all necessary.

Stage 3 sleep, the first of the deep sleep stages, is when muscle recovery begins. At the start of this stage, the body releases growth hormone (GH) from the pituitary gland. GH triggers the growth of tissue to fill in the micro tears created by training, injury, or daily wear and tear. GH hits its peak during stage 3 sleep of the first sleep cycle. It’s released in the subsequent sleep cycles but in increasingly smaller amounts.

Going to bed two to three hours late, even if you stay in bed a full eight hours, alters the GH release pattern. If you get to bed too late, GH doesn’t peak until the second sleep cycle. That may not seem like a problem, however, the peak isn’t as high and GH levels don’t catch up. You’re left without enough GH for full muscle recovery. You’ll also experience lower GH levels if you don’t get enough sleep because the body doesn’t have time to release all the GH necessary for full muscle repair.

The result is longer recovery times and a greater chance of injury.

Sleeping is as important to fitness as stretching

The Case for Better (and More) Sleep

Getting better sleep starts with developing good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene includes all the habits and behaviors in your life that affect your sleep. Start by:

  • Creating a Sleep Supportive Bedroom: A dark, cool, quiet atmosphere removes distractions and creates the conditions necessary for your body temperature to drop for the onset of sleep. If you’re nursing an injury, an adjustable bed may be needed to further support injury recovery.
  • Going to Bed On-Time: This might seem like a no-brainer but many people find themselves watching TV late into the night. A consistent bedtime helps your body adjust the release of sleep hormones to follow your preferred schedule.
  • Follow a Bedtime Routine: Bedtime routines are a childhood favorite because they work. A bedtime routine helps the brain correctly time the release of sleep hormones. The activities in the routine provide an opportunity to reduce daily stress and tension before bed.
  • Spending Time Outside: The brain uses the Earth’s day/night schedule to time the sleep-wake cycle. Time spent outside helps your body soak up the natural sunlight necessary to keep your sleep-wake cycle in sync.

There’s no way around it – sleep keeps your training at its best. The strength to compete and push yourself beyond your limits doesn’t start in the gym or on a bike but in your bed. Sleep acts as the foundation for success in all the other areas of your life. Put it at the top of your priority list and you’ll have more energy and stamina to accomplish your training goals.

Cyclist out for a ride

Stacey L. Nash is a Seattle area writer for Tuck whose insomnia led her to research all aspects of sleep. With a degree in communications from the University of Puget Sound, she helps put sleep into the forefront of the health and wellness conversation. When not researching and writing about sleep, she spends time with her husband and four children on their heavily-wooded, twelve-acre piece of heaven.

Additional photograph by Lindsay Craig & Sarah Pflug - sourced from Burst.