I may not make much (read: any) money from athletics, but there are certain perks to it. I get to meet cool people, I spend every day doing something that I love, oh yeah, and theres the travelling. Now I don’t mean the sort of travelling which almost everyone on Facebook comes back from with a picture of them stroking a doped up tiger, I just mean getting to visit cool places and do more pole vaulting when I’m there.
First we have a two week training camp in Portugal where the Welsh athletes with the best shot at making the Glasgow Commonwealth Games will be training and attempting to create some team spirit (a very difficult task without getting drunk together if you ask me). Then onto Arizona for 3 weeks at the World Athletics Centre, another Welsh athletics opportunity. My aim is to try and find something interesting to write about while Im there, without getting into showing off about how warm and sunny it is, so this could be one of my last more “informative” posts for a while. At least its on one of my favourite topics, sleep.
Sleeping is lovely
I don’t know if it can be stated enough times, but the biggest key to recovery is sleep. Its free and one of the few variables which can actually be shown by science to be linked to recovery and performance (just do a google scholar search for “sleep recovery sport” if you want to read yourself down a rabbit hole). But do you realise that what you do directly before bed can have a massive impact on your sleep quality, thus your recovery and thus your performance.
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight.
Red sky at morning, shepherd take warning
Who’s heard that rhyme before? There is scientific reasons why this happens. Diffraction. As the light passes through the atmosphere it is diffracted by water particles in the air. The angle of the light to the observer at morning and evening means that it passes through a greater distance of this diffracting layer at an angle and thus the light is shifted towards the red end of the light spectrum (the blue light is removed). At mid-day, the light is over head, heading perpendicular to the atmosphere and thus no diffraction occurs, so is always seen as full spectrum white light (all colours are visible).
This is the external environment that we evolved in for many millions of years so its not too much of a surprise that our brains use these light signals in order to set our circadian rhythm. The SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus) in our brain is the area which functions as an internal clock, it takes cues from our external environment in order to constantly calibrate itself and make sure we wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. One of the key ways to calibrate your SCN is light exposure, particularly in the blue spectrum.
The importance of light exposure
I’ve already posted on the importance of vitamin D, but getting good quality sun exposure can also be very important for setting the circadian rhythms of the body. Getting sun exposure during the day tells your body its day time, and as light levels drop towards the evening, this begins chemical processes in our bodies which prepare us for sleep. Of course we choose to f*%k this whole thing up with artificial light sources (aside: isn’t it weird that by me removing two letters from the word its supposed to be less offensive? We can all spell, we all know what it means? why do we even decide that certain words are offensive? but this is neither the time or the place).
One of the hormones produced in the body to induce sleep is melatonin. It has been shown that melatonin production is blocked by exposure to light, and in particular blue light. Funny that, I’m guessing cavemen didn’t take knaps in the sunshine in the middle of the day, but this is just how our bodies chemistry has synced up with our environment over many millennia. So living outside, the light would shift to predominantly red spectrum, then get dark, and we would go to sleep. Why doesn’t this happen any more?
By staying up late with artificial lighting on, we fool our body a little bit into thinking its still day time and that we should be awake. This kinda works, but ultimately will negatively affect your body functions in the long term. Normal light is bad, but as discussed earlier blue light can be the worst. The worst two sources of blue light that we expose ourselves to are energy saving light bulbs and computer/phone screens.
Energy saving light bulbs because of the way they produce luminescence actually fall much further into the blue light spectrum than normal bulbs, good for the environment, bad for you trying to get to sleep soon after turning the light off. Computer and phone screens however are the worst. How many people lay in bed watching their laptop, or reading off their phone or tablet before trying to go to sleep. Not only are these screens producing light in the blue spectrum, but the intensity of this light exposure goes up because you’re holding it so close to your eyes. The eyes are the only sensory organ connected directly to the brain without having to go through the spinal chord, they have a big effect on your brain, pumping blue light into them, which your brain recognises as the middle of the day, just before you try and go to sleep, not a good plan.
What are the options
So unless you’re super cool like a certain couple of gentlemen that I know who’ve gone back to reading by the gentle orangey glow of candlelight in the evening in order to get better sleep, there are a couple of options:
Lightbulbs: Normal lightbulbs are better than energy saving ones, I’ve personally got orangey yellow ones in my lamps at the moment
Blue blocker sunglasses: if you really have to watch that film late at night, or finish that coursework on your laptop, I have a real funky pair of sunglasses which block the blue light and mean I can get to sleep faster and deeper when I’m finished
F.lux: you can even get computer programmes like f.lux which change the hue of your computer screen depending on the time of day, moving away from the blues late at night
Camping: you could also just live outside in a cave and use no artificial light at all, go to bed when it gets dark, wake up at dawn, good luck with that for athletic performance.