The War on Sleep

Editor’s note to issue seventeen of Vertical LifeDownload the Vertical Life App from iTunes or the Kindle Fire App Store here.

I used to be a wonderful sleeper. At uni I would skip early classes in a blissful semi-conscious–semi-guilty haze of late-morning dream states. But times have changed. I now have two children – an eight-month-old who’s teething and a five-year-old who shouts out in the middle of the night and then orders me (like an angry midget Napoleon) to shift his doona ten centimetres or pass him the cup that sits just above his head. Sleep-ins are things of the past, as are nights of unbroken sleep.

With my first child I didn’t think that much about how the sleeplessness affected my climbing, but since my second has come along I’ve noticed it more, probably because I am older this time around. I don’t lack the motivation to train, but I often find I am low on energy, particularly if I am doing a more intense work out. During periods of poor sleep it take noticeably longer to recover. I also get sick more often, such as earlier in the year, during post-birth Peak Sleeplessness, when I got shingles – an old person’s disease, and surely the first sign that I am not long for this world.

As it turns out, my experiences of sleep loss are borne out by science. The more scientists study sleep, the more they are finding that it is crucial to athletic performance, health and happiness. Lack of sleep can affect the body’s ability to repair itself after hard training, it can slow down reaction times, and impair the capacity to learn and absorb new information. So not only do you recover more slowly after training, you can’t latch deadpoints as easily and you are a virtual amnesiac when it comes to remembering sequences. The long-term health repercussions of sleep loss are more serious, with research showing it can cause depression and weight gain, as well as numerous chronic health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

And it’s not just parents who are not sleeping enough. Modern life is not conducive to sleep. Electricity and artificial lighting have extended our days, which has made us more productive. But the increased exposure to light has also affected our ability to sleep. Light stimulates nerve pathways from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones and other functions that make us sleepy (or not). Increased exposure to unnatural light cycles can severely throw out the body’s natural circadian rhythms, and once you disrupt those rhythms it can destroy your ability to get good quality sleep.

Sleep scientists now recommended that athletes get a minimum of ten hours sleep a night. Many of the best athletes in the world, from Usain Bolt to Roger Federer, regularly get between ten and 12 hours of sleep a night, which made me curious about what the best climbers like to get. Finnish boulderer, Nalle Hukkataival, says, ‘I sleep as much as I can. Your skin and muscles regenerate while you’re sleeping the best.’ Alex Megos has much the same philosophy, although he doesn’t sleep as much: ‘I think sleep is very, very important for recovery. Definitely better then any recovery drinks or stuff like that. I try to sleep more than eight hours every night. It doesn’t work all the time, but ideally I’d like to sleep nine hours every night.’ British crusher, Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, thinks ten is ideal, while Italian boulderer, Niccolo Ceria likes to get anywhere between eight to 11 hours a night when he is in hard training.

But sleep is ever on the defensive these day. People wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honour, while phones, tablets and laptops often get dragged into bed and expose us to unnatural levels of light at the absolute worst time. Add in episodes of the Walking Dead (which I’ve had to stop watching), and you’ve got a recipe for sleeplessness.

But do not despair. There are also things that you can do to improve what scientists call your ‘sleep hygiene’. Get plenty of natural light during the day, reduce your exposure to bright light at night, go to bed at the same time every night, avoid stimulants like caffeine late in the day and, my favourite, read a book before you go to bed instead of watching TV or reading on your phone (I’m currently reading Andy Pollitt’s autobiography).

I always thought that the Bon Jovi lyrics, ‘I’ll live while I’m alive, I’ll sleep when I’m dead,’ were moronic and now there’s scientific proof to back me up. Sleep is ever underrated, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of not appreciating it. Remember that sleep is a beautiful, necessary thing – a time to dream, to recover, to make sense of experience. It will also make you climb better. As Nalle says, ‘It’s the beta!’
Ross Taylor

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