When sleeping is part of your training

The philosopher Emil Cioran argued that you do not sleep so much to rest but to forget, and at least in part, you have to give him a reason. Sleep, thanks to the expansion of the spaces between brain cells, allows the brain to eliminate unnecessary memories of the day, as well as toxins - such as the protein beta-amyloid, which accumulates with ageing and is also related to Alzheimer's dementia, enhancing the synapses essential for learning processes. In this way, long-term memory is consolidated.

"Sleep is the price we pay to learn", Giulio Tononi of the University of Madison in Wisconsin summed up at a congress of the Federation of the Neuroscience Societies. And in a way, it also serves the body to "forget" the small traumas of the day: GH, the growth hormone that the body produces while sleeping, is essential to regenerate and repair the tissues of muscles, tendons and cartilage subjected to wear and physical stress. As Matt Walker of the University of Berkeley recently wrote in New Scientist, "there is nobody tissue or brain process that is not improved by sleep or that is not affected by lack of rest".

Sleeping well with a personal sleep coach

Having said that, it is not surprising that for several years now, in the United States and elsewhere, many sports clubs have been adding a sleep coach to their athletic trainers, i.e. a professional sleep physician able to assess, using diagnostic tools and tests, the specificity and sleep needs of each athlete. Athletes from the National Basketball Association (NBA) to the National Football League (NFL), up to Manchester United, Real Madrid and Team Sky cyclists, evident that there are many athletes who have reconsidered the importance of their sleep quality with performance.
Some of the teams mentioned, for example, shared the professional experience of Nick Littlehales, who would later become sleep coach to Cristiano Ronaldo as well. Littlehales does not owe its 20-year reputation in the industry so much to a specific and innovative academic or scientific background, as to a long practical experience in the design, manufacture and sale of sleeping products - beds, mattresses and pillows.

One of the first to draw attention to the importance of quality of sleep, which was not to be considered an interruption in sports training but, on the contrary, a fundamental part of it. Nick Littlehales was hired by the Manchester United coach of the time, Alex Ferguson, and actually managed to help the rehabilitation of defender Gary Pallister, who had suffered a bad back injury. If it is as old as the world the awareness that everyone and athletes are no exception, perform better after a good night's sleep. In recent years the approach to the issue has become increasingly systematic and scientific (several studies on sleep deprivation among athletes have found that the content of muscle glycogen is greatly reduced, along with sprint times and vertical jumping improved).

Starting with the evaluation and possible rearrangement not only of the athletes' bedrooms but also those of the hotels (which is what Littlehales did in 2004 for the FA during the European championships, preparing an easily transportable sleep kit that allows the athlete to sleep even on the floor with the same comfort of the Latvian home), the sleep coach also makes a careful examination of the quality as well as the distribution of sleep cycles - ideally five of 90 minutes each.
Thinking about sleep in terms of cycles, not hours (6 cycles correspond to 9 hours of sleep, 4 cycles to 6 hours etc. etc.), is what allows you to distribute it appropriately throughout the 24 hour day, building a sort of subconscious routine flexible and yet effective. Once it has been established whether one is part of 80% of the "early bird" humanity (the "larks") or of the remaining "night owl" (the "owls"), it is easier than it seems to be to carve out cycles of 90 minutes each, including a preliminary cycle in which you prepare for sleep by turning off each electronic device, the so-called "blue light" is proven to keep your brain hyperactive, relaxing and lowering your body temperature and another in which you recover from sleep, possibly waking up with sunlight or with the help of devices that simulate it.
In this way, Littlehales guarantees that it is not a big problem to recover the sleep cycles occasionally lost in a 20-minute controlled afternoon nap, between 1 pm and 4 pm or 5 pm and 7 pm, depending on your chronotype, the most period of rest to recalibrate and then resume work or training.
Siesta is a traditional break in many countries, especially those with hot climates, and Littlehales noticed this when he went to Spain as a technical advisor to Real Madrid. Not only that, but foods high in carbohydrates typical of Mediterranean countries promote the onset and need for sleep, increasing brain levels of tryptophan.

The keyword for good rest: timing

Because however marginal it may seem, "timing" is also fundamental in rest. Daniel H. Pink, in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, dealt with the analysis of the temporal models underlying many of our actions, including the third of our life we spend sleeping: sleep and wakefulness after all these are only two states which are integrated within a single rhythm. The alternation of the two is regulated by the homeostatic needs of personal balance as well as by a circadian process that oversees the distribution according to external conditions.
In humans (and in mammals in general), for example, the centre of circadian control is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus, which regulates sleep and other biological rhythms by adapting the endogenous rhythm estimated at 25 hours to the exogenous one that is calibrated at 24 hours. Light stimulation of the retina as the pituitary secretion of melatonin during the hours of darkness allows you to keep the cellular clock in tune with the natural one, which is then the optimal condition for good physical and mental performance. Also, with regard to physical activity, Pink identifies advantages in both morning and evening training, which has the advantage of reducing the risk of trauma and contractures because the body is already well "warmed" by a day of activity, but at the same time needs the foresight to be practised far enough from nightly rest, not to compromise it with a body temperature being too high.

We think timing is an art but it's actually a science.

It follows that even in an afternoon nap the timing is fundamental. Pink takes his cue from the countless amount of studies that show how productivity, creativity, physical performance and mood increases with the right number of interruptions and rests during the day. To those who object that they do not have the time to take a break will, in fact, perform lower.

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