Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sleep: The Non-Negotiable and 5 Tips to Get More Out of It

I'm sure you've met someone who talks up their lack of sleep. I live in a city filled with them. Lack of sleep is worn as a badge of honor, demonstrating how much our lives are ruled by work and external validation. It's almost like a game of "can you top this," with the winner always claiming to have slept the fewest number of hours the night before or woken up the earliest. Several years ago, I was one of those people. I thought, "life is short and I want to spend as much time as I can awake, doing things. Sleep is a waste of precious time."

Don't get me wrong, I'm an early riser, but I now recognize and appreciate the power of sleep, from both a physical and mental performance standpoint.

Like many teenagers, I used to watch the show "Cribs" on MTV (don't worry, there's a point to this). During almost every house tour, when it came time to show the person's bedroom, its unveiling was too often preceded by the cliche "and this is where the magic happens." In a weird way, they are right!

Sleep is all about repair and rebuilding. Take for example muscle tissue. When it's trained, whether from hard running or performing heavy squats, the muscle tissue becomes damaged. The soreness that is felt is the result of small tears in the actual muscle tissue itself. Ever touch a muscle (say your quads) after a really tough workout or race? It feels tender and inflamed, right? This is all apart of the body's natural response to damage. It sets in motion a cascade of inflammatory processes to help repair the damaged tissue. 

A lack of sleep also negatively impacts health in a host of ways, evening increasing diabetes, heart disease, and obesity risk, as well as contributing to mental health conditions such as depression.

Because sleep is so foundational to human health, I focus a lot on finding ways to optimize it. Here are a few things: 

Upgrade Your Sleep

1. Go to Bed at the Same Time - Ever have the experience when you go to bed after a late evening, plan to "sleep in" and end up waking up at the same old time you always wake up? I've had this happen countless times. Even if I hit the sack at midnight, my body doesn't get the memo to shift it's wake time back two hours. I'll still be wide awake, ready to go around 6am (I normally wake up anywhere between 5am and 6am). Keep doing this and it's the surest way to accumulate fatigue, compromise your immune system, stifle athletic performance, increase stress, and throw your cardio-metabolic system out of whack, which is why chronic lack of sleep is linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The list of athletic performance factors affected by lack of sleep is quite long, but to name a few: decreased motivation, low body temperature, increased degree of exertion, and increased duration of task (among others). Beyond physical functioning, consistent quality sleep of roughly 7 hours is associated with higher levels of cognitive performance. Basically, if you want to think better, remember things, and be mentally sharp, sleep is a must.

2. Magnesium - Every night, about 30-45 minutes before bed, I'll have about one tablespoon of Natural Calm magnesium with 8oz of water. This powerhouse of a mineral is a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme systems throughout the body. Everything from protein synthesis, to the structural development of bone, to the synthesis of our body's DNA and natural antioxidants are to thank, in part, for magnesium. What happens when the body doesn't get enough magnesium? Well, quite a lot, potentially. There's a fairly long list of symptoms associated with magnesium deficiency. And unfortunately, about half of the U.S. population doesn't consume the recommended amount of magnesium from food. But, related to sleep, magnesium is a natural relaxant, particularly for muscles. On a hormonal level, magnesium deactivates adrenaline, essentially calming the body's "fight of flight" mechanism. This is why magnesium has been so helpful for me the night before races, when I'm hopped up with excitement and nervousness.

3. Cold Exposure - There are some pretty complex biochemical reactions in your body triggered by cold exposure. If you're interested in the details, check out the blog series by neurosurgeon Jack Kruse. The take away with exposure to cold (which can be cold showers for example) is that not only does it stimulate increased caloric burning through brown adipose tissue, it helps the body enter into deeper sleep. Most of my post-workout showers are cold, which usually consist of about 5 minutes in the morning and then another 5 minutes in the evening. 

4. EMF Exposure - Not too long ago I began learning a bit more about the potential impact of EMF exposure on sleep. I've seen research that has gone both ways (difference and no-difference). One of the largest sources of EMF in our homes is the wireless router. Having a router is obviously convenient as laptops, tablets and other devices have become more popular. But, until recently, I really never thought about how it could influence my health. Turns out, it did (and does) more than I thought. So, about nine months ago I began to unplug our wireless router every night before going to bed (not just turn off, but actually unplug). I was shocked at the difference. Yes, this was not a controlled experiment and there could've been any number of factors as to why I slept better, but I'm convinced this is one of them. A good way to compare now is when I sleep in hotels versus at home. Most hotels have a fairly extensive wireless system, and I often find my sleep quality diminishes when I sleep at a hotel. Again, there is no way to draw any causal relationships, but it's one thing I've modified in my sleep routine and I've noticed a difference in sleep quality.

5. Darkness- This may seem obvious, but limiting the amount of light (especially artificial) in the bedroom makes a huge difference. I've found that even the small amount of light from a digital clock on a night stand can be enough to throw me off. In the case of the clock, my wife fashioned a shade that's taped onto the clock and flaps over the clock to cover the light. When I'm traveling and staying in hotels, I'll simply place a shirt over the clock. Shades over the windows are also helpful. Though I've found that blackout shades are a double edged sword because they don't allow any light - even natural sunlight - in the morning that triggers your circadian rhythm.


This evening, when it's time to hit the sack, give one of these a shot. Better yet, if there are things I've missed that are helpful for sleep, leave a comment below.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How Rivalries Improve Performance

I love racing. Actually, let me rephrase that statement. I love to compete. My unyielding desire to test my abilities against other talented athletes is something I grew up nurturing. Though I think its deeply instinctual now, I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

Try growing up with a brother who is 18 months older than you and more physically gifted. For two active boys who loved sports, it was a recipe for daily competition. We grew up competing against each other in everything: one-on-one basketball in the driveway; wrestling on the living room floor (I have the scar on the back of my head to prove this one); and soccer training sessions when we played for the same team.

Soccer often got pretty intense. I dinstinctly remember one session where my brother and I went up against each other in a particular one-on-one drill. The offensive player had to break free from the defender, receive a pass from one of the other 4-5 guys surrounding the small box, and then pass the ball to a different player on the perimeter. Each pass I attempted, or if I held possession just a little too long, whack! I can't recall the number of times I ended up on the ground during that drill. His strength was overpowering. Ok, I'll be honest, I often got roughed up quite a bit. But it didn't matter. I fought harder. All I wanted to do was win. After each battle between us (during soccer and otherwise), I'd walk away hoping one day I could beat him.


"You're one of the most competitive players I've coach," my longtime club soccer coach once told me a number of years back. I can recall those hot summer evenings training with my NJ Rangers club, the flood lights on, sweat pouring over me like I just got out of the pool, and always wanting to play for one more goal. If my side came up on the losing side of "next goal wins," it wasn't even a question, "one more," I'd always respond. Some nights we didn't have enough time to keep playing. Those were the sessions I left in a sour mood contemplating the ins and outs during an often silent ride home.


Competition, and more specifically, rivalry, is a unique ergogenic aid. Pick your favorite sport and rivalry - Magic vs. Bird; Duke vs. UNC; Mo Farah vs. Kenenisa Bekele; or Mark Allen vs. Dave Scott - these battles seemingly bring out the best in both sides. I just finished reading Iron War, an account of the best triathlon ever run between two legends of Ironman, Dave Scott and Mark Allen, both six-time World Champions. What did rivalry produce between the two of them? In 1989, the two ran the marathon leg of the 1989 Ironman World Championships step for step until mile 24 when Mark Allen broke away from Dave Scott to win by a mere 59 seconds and set a run course record of 2:40:04, which still stands today.

There are good reasons to compete and seek out rivalry, that is, if you're goal is continual improvements in performance. A recent study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science researchers analyzed 112 race results from 2007-2009 (3k to half-marathon) of 72 runners from a northeast runner club and found that runners ran significantly faster in races where a perceived rival also raced. In fact, races times were roughly 4.92 seconds/km faster, or about 25 seconds over the course of a 5k race. That definitely is significant!

journal Social Psychological and Personality Science - See more at: http://www.stonehearthnewsletters.com/harnessing-personal-rivalry-can-boost-individuals-athletic-performance/human-behavior-motivation/#sthash.7biE3iyq.dpuf
This is why many find it beneficial to train with a partner or in groups. I personally don't think it's necessary for every session (the logistics of training alone are much simpler and I like the mental toughness that's developed as a result), but strategically placed "competitive sessions" within a training cycle could be the ticket to breaking through a plateau. These can be hard sessions with a training partner, or a local 5k. Both will do the trick.

I took the latter route this past weekend. With some degree of success, I've tried to incorporate some of these local races as a way to gauge fitness. More importantly, because I do almost all of my training alone, these races are about competing. It's the drug: waking up, knowing I'm about to force my body to suffer, all the while trying to go faster then the person next to me. I want to walk right up to that edge, but not fall over it. And sometimes that edge is a little further than what we originally thought.


Going into this 5k I knew my run endurance was pretty solid, thanks to my Boston training earlier this year. But, this endurance focus has somewhat come at the expense of improving top-end speed. With a fairly good base for the year, I've recently starting doing a more focused block of speed work for my run (hello track sessions!).

The 5k was in Reston, VA, where my wife and I live. So, knowing the course wasn't an issue. What surprised me most was the number of people who came out on the morning of July 4th - about 2,000 runners in total. Not bad for a local race. The race also featured some pretty solid middle-distance talent from the area, many of whom run or ran in college. I was no match for their 4:45 pace, but jumping into a race with high-caliber runners forced me to up my game. I ran a 18:19 (5:55 pace) personal best (!) and finished 12th in my age group and 39th overall. Not bad at all after doing a hard hour and 15 minute hill repeat session on the bike the evening before.

After the race with my "Support the Troops" wristband given to all finishers


What does all this mean? Seek out opportunities to regularly compete, and even embrace developing a friendly rivalry with a training partner or fellow race competitor. You just might see your performance improve.