Writing this article presented some interesting challenges.
Here I sit in the support van, halfway across the US in the Race Across America (RAAM), somewhere in Kansas, supporting Team Type 1 in their bid to repeat their 2007 victory and hoping to set a new record. If this were an audio segment, I’d be slurring my words something awful, because I haven’t slept but six hours in the last three days.
If it weren’t for spell check, I’d be slurring my writing too. There’s a race going on and it’s exciting and close… it’s all but impossible to disengage, and even if I could, there’s so much chaos and commotion going on that sleep comes in tiny fitful intervals when consciousness is overwhelmed by fatigue. There are bullhorns blaring encouragement for the riders going on non-stop 24/7, not to mention constant banging on the side of the van, cowbells … gotta keep the riders fired up!
Sleep is critical for us humans. In my sleep deprived state, it is difficult to focus, and to do my best work. My eyes even have a hard time focusing when I’m this tired. If I’m tired, imagine the RAAM riders trying to race when they are sleep deprived. Their bodies are fighting wars on many levels: against the competition, against muscular fatigue, and against sleep deprivation. That is a trait that somewhat defines the RAAM. You have to ride fast to win, but you have to do it on almost no sleep.
I’m supporting a team of eight riders, and they are riding six-hour shifts. When they get off their bikes at the end of a shift, they are busted up, hungry, amped and really tired. It’s hard to get right off the bike and flop into bed and sleep. The adrenaline is still coursing, and even though the riders are totally wiped out, they are unable to sleep sufficiently. On top of that, sleeping in a moving motor home is an art-form few have mastered.
When we ride up on the first solo riders, it is evident that the human body is not meant to be pushed that hard on no sleep. These people look like they have died and forgotten to fall down. They are on auto pilot, and they are barely moving. Every movement is labored and extremely slow. It’s painful to watch. These people are 6 days into the RAAM and have slept only when they could no longer function at even the most basic level. The guys that win this race in the top level solo division are from a distant galaxy.
The performance curve is directly proportional to sleep. The further you go on no sleep, the slower you go. I’ve observed this through the four RAAM races I’ve supported. Historically, in the fourth quarter of the race, the adrenaline is gone, and the sleep comes much easier, and the riders start to recover better between shifts, and the team rides faster.
The message here is that sleep is one of the primary recovery vectors. Most everyone needs more of it. Sleep is the primary avenue for brain chemistry to recover. Sleep is also critical to muscle recovery as many of the hormonal cascades depend on slumber states to initiate and optimize. The general observation for the average type-A person is that they don’t get enough sleep because they are always so busy achieving super things. And their brains are always so busy scheming and/or worrying about achieving super things that they tend to spend too much time not sleeping. If you’re reading this article, you are one of those people.
Sleep should not be a random act that happens as the result of extreme fatigue. It should be planned and executed. For you super-achievers, one of the most superb things you can achieve is sleeping more. How much sleep do you need? Eight hours is the universally accepted prescription, but for cyclists trying to super-achieve at cycling, eight hours is just a good starting point. Eight hours plus a nap is better. And anything more than that is even better still.
It is a challenge these days to find time to sleep. It’s hard to shut down when there’s so many things to think about. But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so super to achieve it. Sleeping is often considered doing nothing and slothful. But this is far from the truth. Sleeping is a necessary tool for super-achieving in cycling.
I am guilty myself of falling to sleep only when my brain and body force me down, like right now for example. As I write this, I’d do just about anything to be in my own bed pulling a 10 hour sleepfest. That said, my RAAM shift is over. I have six hours to recover in a moving motor home before I have to get at it again.
Editor’s note: Rick Crawford is Director of Coaching and COO of Colorado Premier Training. He is also the head coach for the Fort Lewis College cycling team in Durango, Colorado.