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Understanding Sleep for Optimal Recovery & Productivity
Travis Cooper

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Image from http://www.alongside.me/human-improvement/human-improvement-mind/triphasic-sleep/
Sleep is the most important part of recovery when it comes to illness, depression, stress and especially training. In regards to weightlifting, without quality sleep, weightlifters cannot properly recover and reach their full potential. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about sleep and sleep cycles, so hopefully this article will clarify a few things so you will be able to get the most out of your sleep, which will result in optimal training.

As seen in the included graph, there are several different stages of sleep: Stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM. Most people seem to think that a typical sleep cycle consists of only one cycle through the stages. As you can see in the image above, the stages of sleep actually cycle throughout the night depending on the duration of asleep.

When you initially go to sleep, you soon dip into stage 1. Over the next hour, the body will go into deeper sleep until it reaches stage 4. As stage 4 ends, you will transition out of the deepest part of sleep and reverse back into the lighter stages until you hit REM. REM occurs about 2 hours after initially falling asleep. Some people think that REM sleep is the deepest period of sleep, but as you can see in the diagram, stage 4 is actually the deepest period of sleep and REM is the closest to being awake the body will be in the sleep cycle. While REM is where most of your dreaming takes place, it is actually the period of sleep where you are closest to being awake.

The body typically goes into stage 4 only two times in a full 8-hour sleep cycle. After two full cycles of stage 1-REM sleep, the body will cut out stage 4. After three cycles, the body will cut out stage 3. The body will continue to go through two cycles of stage 2 and REM before you awake naturally.

If you are not getting 8 hours of sleep per night, you are not completing the cycles of sleep and thus not optimizing your recovery. It is impossible to overcome sleep deprivation through any other recovery method. If something helps, the results are merely temporary. In an ideal world, 8 hours of sleep would be a regular occurrence and there would be no need for sleep studies and articles because everyone would be getting enough rest for recovery. In a fast-paced world filled with work, family and other obligations, sleep isn’t always a priority.

Most weightlifters in this country have things other than weightlifting in their lives, such as careers and families to support. They may work a typical 8am-5pm job, participate in family activities, and eventually train in the remaining hours left in the day. In most cases like this, a person is very unlikely to get in a full sleep cycle of 8 hours.

There are some things to take into consideration if you absolutely cannot get a full 8 hours of sleep per night. Often times we set our alarms to go off at the last possible moment so that we can wake up and still make it to work on time. It makes sense to us to do this. More sleep = better sleep, right? 5 hours and 35 minutes must be better than 5 hours and 5 minutes. In actuality, quantity of sleep may not be optimal for your sleep cycle and productivity if you are getting less than the full 8 recommended hours.

The least optimal period of sleep to wake up during is stage 4. Stage 4 is the deepest period of sleep and if you wake up out of stage 4, you are likely to be disoriented, groggy, and even have a headache. An example might be on a night where your house alarm goes off and you wake up out of a deep sleep with a headache and it takes a few minutes to figure out where you are and what’s happening. The pattern follows from least to most optimal to wake up is stage 4, 3, 2, 1, REM (stage 1 and REM being the most ideal stages during which to wake up). The deeper the period of sleep you are in when your alarm goes off, the more groggy, disoriented and less productive you will be that day.

When you wake up out of deep periods of sleep continuously, you are subconsciously telling your body that you no longer need deep periods of sleep. Sleep disorders are likely to occur because of this. If you are regularly able to wake up during the lighter periods of sleep, productivity is higher and you will find yourself much more alert and feeling well-rested throughout the day.

For instance, if you only had 5 total hours to sleep, it would be more ideal to wake up at the end of the REM cycle which should occur at only 4 hours 15 minutes than to wake up at any point between 4 hours 15 minutes and 5 hours since your body will be in a deeper stage of sleep in that final 45 minutes. Another thing to realize is that the first 4 hours of sleep is where most of the deep sleep happens. As the sleep cycle continues, you will spend less time in deeper periods of sleep and more time in REM sleep.

So, of what use is this information? This is a weightlifting website and this is an article about sleeping. My suggestion is that if you know you will not be getting a full 8 hours of sleep, you should utilize the sleep stage chart and set your alarm for a time that gives you a good chance to wake up in a lighter period of sleep, even if that means you will get less total sleep. You will find that you will feel more refreshed and be more productive. Training (and other aspects of your life) will go better if you wake up in the proper part of your sleep cycle.

Products are continuously being developed regarding this subject. Eventually, you will be able to purchase a product that allows you to set a time interval and it will know when during that time interval is most optimal to wake you up. These are called smart alarms or sleep cycle alarms. Until then, you have the most control over your sleep intervals. A simple sleep chart and proper planning may make the difference in how you train and recover to the best of your ability. Give it a try and the results may surprise you.

Sleep well, eat well, and train hard!


Travis Cooper is the 2013 National Champion and Pan Am Bronze Medalist in the 85kg weight class. He trains with and competes for team MDUSA.


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1 Comments
Mike 2014-04-14
Great article! I took a class in undergrad that pretty much boiled down to 3 things for a healthy life: exercise, sleep, and stress relief. It was one of my exercise psych or phys classes. Most people probably already know but there are already many smartphone apps that can "track" your sleep simply by movement. Like you said, you set a wake up time within a range. It wakes you best within that range based on your movement in bed. Sure there are some imperfections such as sleeping with someone else but it worked for me. It also graphs your movements and correlates that to stages of sleep. Since it graphs it I just studied the graph and used the trial period so I didn't have to buy it. I would also suggest to people that if you find yourself waking up naturally 30-60 minutes before your alarm to go ahead and get up instead of going back to sleep and waking up more groggy.
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