There is a two-way relationship between sleep and sport. Sleep can influence taking part in sport, and taking part in sport can influence sleep. For example, when we train for a sufficient duration, and at an adequate intensity our sleep generally occurs more readily and a greater portion of the night is spent in deeper stages of sleep. However, when our sleep is disturbed or restricted then we become less motivated to train and when we do train, training feels more strenuous than normal, and vice versa.
Morning-lark or night-owl?
One aspect of this interaction which is highly influential is when we choose to train. This choice or preference is largely determined by both our biological makeup and our daily schedules. As a result, the answer to the question – ‘when is the best time to train?’ isn’t a straightforward one.
Firstly, our chronotype (or where we biologically sit on the morning-lark to evening-owl continuum) plays a large part in when we choose to train (or do anything, for that matter!). To demonstrate this point, imagine you lived in a world where schedules didn’t exist, and you had the opportunity to completely plan your day! Now, ask yourself – when would I choose to go to bed? When would I wake up? When would I prefer to start work? And when would I train? If the answers to these questions are the morning, then you are more likely to be a morning-lark. If your answers were the evening, then you are more likely to be an evening-owl.
You may notice that you are neither, which is where many of us sit but we will lean one way or the other. However, as we all well know this isn’t the world we live in unless we are on holiday or retired from work!
Read more: The Sleep Matters Club Bedtime Yoga Chart
Schedules (e.g. school, University, work, family life etc.) tend to govern the choices we make when it comes to when we train, and these choices can affect our sleep. We can consider the demands of elite sport to demonstrate this point. For example, it has been shown that athletes who regularly adhere to the demands of very early morning training schedules (e.g. swimmers and rowers) tend to obtain less sleep. They also report greater levels of pre-training fatigue than sports that adhere to training schedules where the first session starts later in the day. In this scenario, the regular demands of training schedules in some elite sports can pose clear challenges to athlete sleep.
In the case of the everyday athlete, the same underlying principles apply. For example, if you have a young family, commute a long distance to work, and start work early in the morning then you are less likely to have time to train in the morning unless your get-up time is very early. As another example, the everyday club athlete often trains later in the evening after work during more social hours.
While current recommendations advise avoiding training within several hours of going to sleep at night, this seems unpractical for the everyday athlete leading a busy life. Plus, there is limited evidence to suggest training close to bed-time impairs your sleep unless you are a problematic sleeper in the first instance. Given the known benefits of training (or being physically active in general), the phrase ‘better late than never’ seems appropriate, here!
Can you sleep your way to the finish line?
Overall, it is important to note that both your sleep and training are important for health, well-being and athletic performance, and are influenced by an interaction of your chronotype and schedules. However, as everyone’s schedules will be very different, there is no such thing as a winning-schedule-for-all you can adopt. Instead, try to find a balanced training schedule that suits you, while remembering that training is what will make you fitter and generally a better athlete.
Waking up very early on an odd morning or going to bed slightly later now and then to fit in your training isn’t going to do you any harm – unfortunately, you cannot sleep your way to the finish line!