Hardcore Slumber

Are you getting optimal, muscle building levels of sound sleep? I am and it feels great! In fact, waking up after a full night of log sawing, I feel almost the same sense of accomplishment as completing a grueling workout in the gym!

It's sounds pretty geeky to get excited about sleep, but what can I say? Unfortunately, I find myself in the minority. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 56% of adults report daytime drowsiness is a problem for them. Are you part of that 56%? Although the signs of sleep deprivation are easy to read, most people don't know what they are. Let's review.

Do your workouts lack fire? Has your progress all but stopped? Do you feel angry, stressed, or pessimistic? (1, 2, 3) When you nudge your workout partner to point out a Terminatrix bouncing along on the stepper, can you muster colorful, descriptive adjectives, or do you end up with a grunt and a thin stream of drool trickling from the corner of your slack jaw? If you neglected to come up with smokin', statuesque, and stunning, lack of sleep might be responsible for your lackluster vocabulary and impaired mental abilities.

Not to overstate the obvious, but daytime drowsiness (even in boring situations) is a key indicator of sleep deprivation, as is needing a couple cups of coffee or other caffeine fix to get you going. If you're slapping the snooze button on your alarm clock like a junkie desperate for another hit, this could be a sign of sleep deprivation.

Do you have difficulty dealing with everyday annoyances? (4) Could be sleep deprivation. For that matter, so is needing an alarm clock to wake up. Yep, that's right! Needing an alarm clock to wake up isn't a good sign! Your body knows how much sleep it needs. When it's had enough it'll wake up on its own.

You can't get too much either, because you'll either wake up or have trouble falling asleep when your body isn't tired. You can't stockpile sleep any more than you can stockpile workouts. You don't do the same workout five times on a Saturday because you're going on vacation for two weeks. The same is true for sleep.

Although you can't stockpile sleep you can make it up. Depending on the extent of your sleep deficit, making it up can take a couple of days or much longer. Think of it like a bucket full of energy you draw on during the course of your day. You can fill an empty bucket up to the top, but that's it–you can't get it any fuller than full. Anything less than a full bucket and you'll know it by the end of the day.

Individualized Sleep

Okay, so now you should have a good idea whether you're getting enough sleep based on the signs listed above, but how much sleep does a body really need? Well, infants need sixteen hours per day, teens need nine on average, and adults need seven to eight. Incidentally, you don't need more (or less) sleep past early adulthood, though the elderly have a host of issues and medications complicating/disrupting their sleep which can lead to staying in bed longer to get the same recuperative effect.

To answer the "how much do I need" question, we'll refer to some folks who spent fourteen hours a day for a month in absolute darkness. With absolutely nothing to do during their time in the dark, the subjects slept twelve to thirteen hours per day. As the days wore on, they "paid off" their sleep debt and sleep time began to decline asymptotically to eight hours and fifteen minutes. (Keep in mind six hours of undisturbed sleep might be worth far more than eight hours of disturbed slumber.)

In light of the above, I think you might have to "frontload" your sleep. If you're really serious about diet, training, and recovery, then devote three or four evenings to going to bed early and paying off your sleep debt. This is about the same number of days required to restore mood, dynamic strength, peak power, and work capacity after transmeridianal travel (jetlag). (3)

You didn't get yourself in this predicament overnight, so don't expect to get out of it overnight. The good news for a lot of people out there who think they have some strange viral illness or low-grade depression/fatigue/tiredness, stress, changing metabolism, etc. is that they can pay off their sleep debt and be feeling good again.

Figuring out how much sleep you need is fairly straightforward. Eight hours is generally agreed to as the average amount needed–yes, even for athletes. Exercise has only a modest affect on total sleep time required, though a person who's exercised will sleep more soundly than his sedentary counterpart.

Go to bed eight hours before you need to wake up. I realize this is a huge stretch for many, but give it a shot. Do it for a week. If you feel rested and ready to go in the morning and throughout the day, you're set. If you feel like you're mentally on the short bus, add 15 to 30 minutes to your sleep time and try that for the next week. If you're getting up before the alarm, try subtracting 15 to 30 minutes off your time.

Roadblocks on the Highway to Nod

If you're not getting enough sleep it's likely you fall into one of the following categories:

Category 1: The number one excuse I hear is, "I don't have time to sleep eight hours." What-ever! These same people don't have time to work out consistently, eat nutritiously, do squats, or wear clean underwear.

I've yet to see anyone holding a gun to their heads forcing them to light both ends of the candle. Surveys and studies show the more time you spend at work, the less time you'll spend sleeping. If this is you, re-read Part I and make sure the reasons you're burning the candle at both ends are worth being a flabby, weak, Nancy boy.

Category 2: You can't fall asleep (or you fall asleep but still wake up feeling tired). This hopefully doesn't apply to T-mag readers, but if you lay around on the couch all day, you won't feel tired when you go to bed. And when you do nod off, you won't sleep well. (5) Since T-mag readers spend plenty of time in the gym, they probably don't fit into this category.

So, let's say you feel tired, so you lie down but just can't fall asleep. Why? The cause could be exogenous or endogenous. Let's knock off a few easy exogenous roadblocks right away.


Is your neighbor mowing the lawn? Stray cat getting some action right outside your window? Do you live in an apartment or dorm where people are making noise until all hours of the night? Is your partner snoring? A cheap and easy solution is earplugs.

Stop letting other people destroy your sleep. Visit any store that sells power tools, guns, or safety equipment. Or check the Internet and get yourself a bunch. Earplugs can put you back in the driver's seat and allow you to sleep where otherwise you might not. (6) I've slept soundly through thunderstorms, drag races, sirens, and God only knows what else because I sure didn't hear it.

If your earplugs still let enough noise through to bother you, or you can't get used to them, then consider a white noise generator. You can buy one or use something like a fan, radio static, or a recording of ocean waves.

In addition to making falling asleep a more difficult proposition, noise can disrupt sleep and diminish its recuperative value. (7, 8, 9) You may also want to consider wearing earplugs during excessive daytime noise exposure as this has been shown to affect the quality of your nighttime sleep. (10)


The biggest problem isn't noise however, it's light. Light is a zeitgeber, which is a fancy term for an environmental time cue which controls your circadian rhythm. Your body clock would run on a 25-hour schedule if it didn't get clued in by zeitgebers. (11) Fortunately for us, the sun has established a fairly solid track, rising and setting with almost uncanny predictability. Temperature and possibly even sleep itself can be zeitgebers as well. (12) There are also man-made zeitgebers, like the alarm clock, the neighbor's dog, artificial light, etc.

Your body's natural rhythms (physiology and behavior) are controlled by the circadian clock. Strength, power, and flexibility–all components important to athletes–vary in a sinusoidal manner, peaking in the early evening. (13) The "clock" itself, physically discovered by Harvard Medical School researchers in 2001, is a tiny cluster of nerve cells behind your eyes which sends signals to your suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). (14) The SCN then acts as a pacemaker, running your body processes on a 24-hour cycle.

When you stimulate these cells with light you're in effect signaling the body to stay awake. You're shifting your circadian clock. Incidentally, the circadian rhythms of the physically fit are larger in amplitude than their sedentary counterparts. (13)

As you wind down for bed you want any light to which you're exposed to mimic the setting sun. Soft, indirect light is best. That said, don't go overboard and freak out your family by hiding in the closet like a vampire after dinner. Sunlight is anywhere from 20 to 200 times brighter than ordinary room light in a residential setting. Exposure to such bright light during the day has been shown to increase endurance performance. (15)

The light leaking into your bedroom windows isn't the only clock-resetting light. Probably the sneakiest, most insidious sleep stealer out there is the computer monitor, followed closely by the TV. (16) Stimulate that tiny cluster of nerve cells by staring at the monitor a few feet away from your face and those cells are going to suppress your melatonin production, set the circadian clock ahead, and generally make getting to sleep more difficult. (17)

Maybe you go to bed at 9:00 when it's still light and get up at 5:00 a.m. Or maybe you work the night shift. Whatever, control the light in your bedroom. You want total darkness. You probably can't achieve that if you have the lacy ruffle shades your ex left you with. Get some heavy material to cover your windows. Depending on your budget, this can be as simple as a cardboard box you scavenged from behind the grocery store to heavy duty, custom-made drapes. You can also try a sleep mask.

Other Roadblocks

Ideally you want a routine you follow every night before bed. Maybe it's reading or meditating, praying for bigger muscles, or simply reflecting on your day. The goal is to get your body used to the idea that it's preparing to shut down, so don't do anything which will rev up your body and mess with your circadian clock. (18)

Napping can also wreak havoc with your circadian clock. Unless you're planning to make naps a regular part of your day, I'd advise against them. That said, if you're going to nap, say between an intense morning and evening workout, the most restorative way to go about napping is to sleep around 90 minutes so you can make it through one full sleep cycle and accrue the benefits.

Noise and light eliminated, we can just go to sleep, right? No distractions. Ahhh... Feel the silence, the beautiful absence of noise; marinate in the darkness. Wait. Is the test tomorrow? Are they real or fake? Did I call and make that appointment? Will she slap me if I ask her? How am I going to pay that bill?

If this is a snapshot of what goes on in your head, get up. Seriously, get up, make a list of all the stuff you need to take care of and resolve to deal with it in the morning. However, this trick only works if you actually do take care of those things the next day. If you've spent several years entangling yourself in difficult situations and cultivating procrastination, don't expect instant resolution. Maybe you need a wholesale life change.

Whatever you decide, stop worrying and start doing, because there's a term for people who worry in bed: insomniacs. (19) The imbalanced hormone levels which come from the chronic stress of worry and resultant lack of sleep is literally killing you. (20) Deal with it. (But don't worry about it because that can cause insomnia!)

Enter Sandman

Okay, so now you're lying there in the dark. The room is silent except for your heartbeat. You're tired, relaxed, not worried about anything, all ready to fall asleep... but you still can't! What now?

Scroll through the food and drink you've consumed in the last five hours. You avoided the obvious blunders like caffeine and chocolate, right? Do you work out after dinner and take an energy drink that contains the amino acid tyrosine or its derivative tyramine? These substances trigger the release of norepinephrine which induces an alert waking state. Great for a workout, not so great at bedtime.

Foods naturally rich in these substances include spinach, potatoes, beer, tomatoes, sauerkraut, bacon, cheese (not cottage), ham, sausage, and some other stuff like chicken liver and eggplant which you have no business eating anyway.

Speaking of beer, initially alcohol improves sleep in non-alcoholics, but the body develops a tolerance to this initial beneficial effect. (21, 22) At higher doses, the second half of the night's sleep is disturbed due to withdrawal symptoms. (21) (Alcoholics' sleep is disturbed both while they're drinking and for months after abstinence.)

Alcohol exacerbates daytime sleepiness, sleep disordered breathing, and can aggravate or even induce sleep apnea in persons at risk. (22, 23, 24) Taken in conjunction with its unfortunate and infamous ability to suppress Testosterone production and GH release, it's hard to find any redeeming quality of alcohol. All that and it messes with your circadian machinery to boot. (25, 26, 27)

While we're on the subject of food, it's not good to go to bed ravenously hungry. If your muscle glycogen stores are depleted from excessive fasting or a funky diet, this will also interfere with sleep. (28)

Drinking too much water is another blunder. If the alarm on the "water clock" goes off in the middle of the night it can disrupt your sleep cycling. Try cutting off liquids three hours before you hit the hay, but be smart about it: obviously you can't go to bed with a raging thirst. The same goes for you fanatics setting an alarm and waking up in the middle of the night to slam a protein shake. You're putting gas in the tank and tossing the accelerator pedal out the window. (8) As an alternative, eat cottage cheese or other slow digesting protein before bed.

One last item I have to touch on is "sleep enhancers." These are Band-Aid, temporary fixes health-minded people shouldn't need. One survey back in 1998 found that in a sample of Detroit residents ages 18 to 45 years, 13% used alcohol, 18% used medications, and 5% used both. So around a quarter of people are using something to get to sleep.

We covered alcohol earlier, so let me tell you that although melatonin supplements work well in elderly, melatonin-deficient patients, there's little evidence supporting their efficacy among others. (29) So unless you're shuffling around in a saggy pair of Depends, skip the sleep aids and fix the problem.

If you've tried all the above suggestions and still feel tired after a month, you may have a genuine sleep disorder. Thirty-three percent of the population has a treatable medical condition affecting their sleep, so don't feel like you're alone. Insomnia is the most prevalent disorder, and if you suspect you have an actual disorder, get yourself to a doctor.

Oh, and yes, heredity has some influence on your sleep/wake patterns, but it's an influence, not the sole determinant. (30) Whatever the case, there are all sorts of sleep labs whose sole purpose is to diagnose sleep disorders and help people get quality rest.


I hope I've given you what you need to dial in your sleep and get the most from your time in bed... well, your time in bed sleeping, at least!

References Cited

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26. Except for its seeming ability to make women want to get nekkid.

27. Danel T, et al., "The effect of alcohol consumption on the circadian control of human core body temperature is time dependent." Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 2001;281(1)R52-5

28. Nindl B, et al., "Physical performance and metabolic recovery among lean, healthy men following a prolonged energy deficit." Int J Sports Med. 1997 Jul;18(5):317-24.

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30. De Castro J, "The influence of heredity on self-reported sleep patterns in free-living humans." Physiol Behav 2002;76(4-5):479-86.