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Muscle Recovery After a Workout: The Important Role of Sleep

Muscle Recovery After a Workout: The Important Role of Sleep

For folks working to either get in shape or stay in shape this holiday season, this guide will explain to them the important role sleep plays in reaching their goals.

When you are regularly working out, you don’t always have the luxury of an extended recovery time. It’s common for people to spring an injury during workouts, only to have to power through the injury without giving themselves adequate time to heal. 

Of course, there’s nothing better than sinking into the best mattress, but few people realize how much sleep can aid in muscle recovery. There are many flashy, expensive solutions out there to help improve sleep and reduce injury: supplements and therapies, machines and at-home systems. Some of these are effective, and some are not, but don’t underestimate the value of good old-fashioned sleep. 

At the end of the day, your body needs rest so it can recoup and rebuild. This is why you should never underestimate the power of sleep, especially when you are working out.

Sleep Stages For Muscle Recovery

Sleep plays a major role in helping your body recover after a long day of physical activity. It especially becomes important as you age in order to maintain muscle mass and preserve tissue. Muscle-building hormones, especially the human growth hormone (HGH), are created during your sleep, and studies have also shown a direct correlation between sleep and improved muscle coordination. It’s all thanks to the body’s different stages between REM and Non-REM sleep.

REM And Non-REM Sleep

There is a pronounced difference between REM and non-REM sleep. When we fall asleep, we first go through a period of non-REM sleep before moving into a shorter period of REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement, something that naturally occurs when we sleep, and this is often the stage in which we dream. 

Non-REM sleep is different, and SportsLab NYC explains in further detail. “Your brain is resting with very little activity, so the blood supply available to your muscles increases, delivering extra amounts of oxygen and nutrients which facilitate their healing and growth.”

Benefits of Non-REM sleep
Repair and regrow tissuesBuild bone and muscleStrengthen immune system

There are three stages of non-REM sleep in total, and each performs a different purpose when it comes to muscle recovery.

Stage 1 non-REM sleep: falling asleep

Non-REM sleep is the stage when you are just starting to fall asleep, but it is still easy for you to wake up. This cycle usually lasts between five and ten minutes.

Stage 2 non-REM sleep: light sleep

This stage is often marked by a slower heart rate and a lower body temperature. It is the part where you are preparing for the deep sleep of stage 3.

Stage 3 non-REM sleep: deep sleep

This is when tissue repair begins, marked by increased blood flow to muscles, which helps them to relax and alleviate much of the tension you are feeling. This can also be an excellent tool in combating the pain associated with some types of chronic conditions.

Stage 4 REM sleep: 

About 90 minutes after you fall asleep, you enter REM sleep. While the first cycle of REM sleep may only last about ten minutes, subsequent stages begin to last longer. Some REM sleep stages can last up to an hour..

While adults only have about 20% of REM sleep, babies can have as much as half of their sleep spent in the REM stage.

Experts recommend a consistent sleep schedule of anywhere from seven to nine hours, but they note that people who consistently workout can often benefit from more.

The Best Times of Day To Exercise

Although it’s great for your health, exercise is not always so great for your sleep. When you work out in the morning, you get deeper sleep at night. If you wait to workout in the evening before bed, however, you could find yourself too stimulated, resulting in tossing and turning all night.

Experts especially recommend moving your workout outdoors so you can benefit from some extra Vitamin D while you exercise.

Benefits of morning exercise

Studies show that those who work out at 7am sleep more soundly and enjoy deeper sleep cycles, with 75% more time spent in recovery and repair.

When you work out earlier in the day, you will likely notice positive changes such as these:

  • Higher energy levels
  • More sound mental health
  • Better sleep health

Benefits of mid-day exercise

If you are not an early bird, an afternoon workout could be just the ticket to better health. 

Your body increases a few degrees in the afternoon, which can loosen and prepare your muscles for a better workout with less opportunity for injury.  Your body’s temperature will begin to lower a few hours after your workout, which can better help the body prepare for sleep. 

Negative effects of pre-bedtime workouts

At the end of a busy day, it may be tempting to squeeze in a quick workout before bed, but this can actually interfere with your sleep. 

Demanding workouts, especially those incorporating cardio, can make it harder for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. Not everyone is affected by an evening workout, but studies have shown that many athletes suffer from impacted sleep when they work out before bed.

Try replacing your evening workouts with yoga or stretching instead, as these activities promote a more relaxing mood that is more conducive to sleep.  

Bedtime Tips For An Athlete: 

The word athlete may bring images of gold medals and trophies to mind, but the truth is that anyone who exercises can benefit from these tips. 

When you carefully time your daily exercise, you can better match your body’s natural patterns each day and find a more restful sleep schedule with more deep sleep.  

Wind down routine

Your brain and body need time to wind down from the day. That’s why a 30-minute pre-bedtime routine can help you prepare for bed and find more restful sleep. 

The Henry Ford Health System suggests that either a hot or cold shower could help you sleep better. Ice baths and cryotherapy have long been a critical tool in muscle recovery for athletes, as it can reduce inflammation and hasten recovery times. 

Heat therapy can also be very effective, relaxing muscles and reducing inflammation. However, if you choose a hot shower or bath, be sure to properly hydrate before bed to counteract the effects of both the heat and your earlier workout.

Try both to see which works better for your body chemistry.

No sugary athletic drinks

For many, Gatorade and similar drinks are a go-to for a post-workout refresher, but this could actually do more harm than good. The average Gatorade contains 450 milligrams of sugar per liter; the average Powerade has 225 milligrams. Sugar-filled drinks such as these can prevent sleep and keep you up at night if you drink them too close to bedtime.

Relaxation exercises

Breathing exercises are an underrated, but extremely effective way to promote better sleep. They have also emerged as a key treatment for coronavirus because it is an easy way for you to strengthen your lungs. 

Verywell Mind has some great tips for relaxation and breathing exercises, such as these. 

  • Use abdominal breathing, where you breathe deeply from the belly instead of the chest.
  • Repeat a mantra, where you repeat a positive phrase to reinforce relaxation.
  • Create a breathing routine, like a 4-7-8 routine to regulate your breathing.
  • Scan your body for areas of tension and focus on relaxing them one by one.
  • Visualize breathing imagery to help control your breathing.

Unplug technology

We live in a 24/7 world driven by an endless stream of media and new content, which makes it really hard to put that phone down before bed. Athletes need solid rest to recover, but you can’t accomplish this if your mind is still back in your phone. This is especially crucial when you are away competing; technology makes it all too easy to stay up obsessing over stats all night, but it can be a huge deterrent from your own mental preparation and focus. Put away the technology and instead focus on your game, which begins with solid rest.

Foam roll and massages

Foam rolls and massages are popular to prevent injuries, but they can help you sleep better, too. 

Foam rolls are a great at-home, DIY alternative to the standard massage, allowing you to customize the rolling action to really dig out all of the tension lurking in your body and advance the recovery process. It’s a soothing activity that relaxes your body and readies it for rest.

Supplements to take before bed

There are several supplements that you can take before bed to advance the recovery process and improve your sleep. 

  • Magnesium: This natural mineral is used to bolster brain and heart health. Its relaxing properties are similar to melatonin, and studies show that it can significantly improve sleep quality in its users.
  • Valerian root: This is one of the most common natural anecdotes for anxiety, depression and menopause. It has shown to be incredibly effective in helping the body achieve better sleep. 
  • Lavender: Lavender is great to use in any form, making it also one of the easiest supplements to come by. A little lavender on your pillow has been shown to reduce insomnia and improve disrupted sleep.

What to eat before bed

Glycine is a common amino acid that’s found in many foods. This not only improves the quality and duration of your sleep, but users also report feeling livelier the next day with more energy and better focus. 

To increase your glycine intake, add these foods to your regular diet:

  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Fish 
  • Beans
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Bananas
  • Kiwis

Studies show that while it can be harmful to consume sugar and fat before bed, healthy foods such as these can help welcome sleep.

For every two hours that an athlete spends stressed, experts say one hour of deep rest is required to counteract the negative effects. Less than eight hours a night of sleep can cause up to 15% in testosterone losses.

Sleep is a miracle, wonder drug that costs nothing and is available to just about anyone. As an athlete, the best thing you can do to honor your workout gains and keep your body performing its best is by getting the sleep you need to repair and grow each day.