Podcast, Recovery, Science

Sleep, recovery, and performance with Shona Halson | EP#52

 August 24, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Sleep, recovery, and performance with Shona Halson | EP#52

You know that recovery is important for triathlon performance. But just how important is it? And how can you improve your recovery status without disrupting your life?

Shona Halson, PhD, and Senior Recovery Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) discusses that today.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • How important is recovery for triathletes?
  • Different recovery methods and their relevance
  • Sleep and its impact on performance
  • Screens, electronic devices and sleep


About Shona Halson​

02:04 -

  • My role is a combination of direct athlete servicing as well as research and PhD student supervision.​
  • In terms of the actual service provision, we do a range of different things regarding recovery. Programming recovery, training programs, sleep monitoring and education, to name a few.
  • My PhD was in overtraining in cyclists. I was really interested in fatigue. When the job at AIS (Australian Institute of Sports) came up it was a fatigue and recovery scientist job, so I went in with the fatigue background and not so much the recovery background. But as we did more research, we found that the one thing that we could actually implement and see big changes with was introducing recovery into the training program.
  • Typically we work with summer Olympic sports. We do a little bit of winter Olympic work. We work across a number of sports like cycling and swimming.

How important is recovery for endurance athletes?

04:15 -

  • The only way that an athlete can deal with the increasing training volumes and intensities nowadays is by making sure that when they have their time off, they’re doing good recovery.​
  • For most of the athletes who I’ve seen who are in seriously fatigued, whether that is excessive fatigue, overreaching, or overtraining, it tends to be because of a lack of recovery. Whether that’s not sleeping well, not having enough downtime, combining work, shift work, those kinds of things.
  • We believe that recovery is really important during the season and general training. But we also know that during competition that recovery can also be really important.

What are the most important recovery methods that endurance athletes should use?

05:47 -

  • My perspective is that sleep is the best recovery strategy that we have available to us, not just in athletes but all of us.​
  • You should get 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
  • We do work with hydrotherapy, things like ice baths and contrast baths. We believe that in a competition or acute setting, they can quite be beneficial.
  • Also, we do work with compression garments. If used correctly they can be beneficial as well.
  • Massage in the recovery period can also be good.
  • The area that we’re really trying to move into that hasn’t got a lot of science behind it is around mental recovery. We spend a lot of time in the periphery measuring the muscles and now it’s time to measure the brain and see how it recovers after exercise.

What factors affect your recovery needs?

07:52 -

  • The amount and type of training. If you’re swimming, you’ll potentially have a different recovery requirement than if you’re doing a longer hard run because of the potential muscle damage that you may experience.​
  • You may need different types of nutrition in response to that.
  • What are the other demands on the athlete? Are they working? Are they training? Do they do a lot of travel which we know can cause that kind of mental stress as well.
  • It’s really looking at the actual training involved and then all of the other things around that may cause the athlete to need more recovery.

How do you measure training load?

09:02 -

  • It varies depending on the sport.​
  • We have an online athlete management system where the athletes can not only record what they’ve done. But they also record their responses to it.
  • We think this is really important because you can go out and do a really hard session and either feel great or feel not so great.
  • We’ve got several tools that we use either objectively or subjectively through our athlete management system to try and get an idea of what the load is for the athlete and then how they’re responding to that load.

How does sleep affect performance?

10:19 -

  • ​There’s a couple of different ways that sleep is important for an athlete.
  • Firstly, we know from research that if an athlete is sleep deprived for a certain amount of time, usually more than 3-4 days, you can see changes in performance. There is no change in physiology. It’s not like your VO2 or heart rate drops or anything like that. What happens is the perception of effort increases. Everything just seems harder.
  • There is also evidence that if you extend sleep, then your performance improves.
  • Different aspects that happen when an individual is sleep deprived include being more likely to get sick, injured, and changes in metabolism which leads to a tendency to eat high-fat food or simple carbohydrates to get that quick hit. The longer you stay awake, the more opportunities for you to eat.
  • There’s a bit of evidence out there on bone health. Interfering with our body clock by staying awake later, longer, and having less time asleep is going to have some ramifications.
  • From a health point of view, there’s a lot of things that are implicated with poor sleep. From a brain point of view, there’s also a lot of research in this area especially around memory, concentration, learning, reaction time, etc. They are all reduced if an individual is not getting good sleep.
  • Sleep is important around competition because you want people to be as fresh as possible. But also in the general training process and being able to adapt to the training that you are doing.

Is there any research on the reduced performance due to increased perception of effort from sleep deprivation? 

14:04 -

  • There’s one or two studies that have looked at sleep deprivation and that’s what exactly they have found. One of the issues we have on some of the research is that they tend to use one night of full sleep deprivation. Most people don’t actually do that. Most people just sleep small amounts regularly.​
  • The increased perception of effort is during the acute periods of 3-4 days of sleep deprivation. If that goes on for long periods of time, then you may have the changes in physiology, general health, well-being, and injury risk.
  • You should get an idea of what your normal sleep is. The sleep requirement for each person is very different. Some people can get by with less sleep, but some need more to get by. So know what’s normal for you, and always go back to this, and try to get that amount of sleep as often as possible.
  • Most athletes sleep on average about 6.5 to 7 hours. We believe this is not enough. We’ve see some athletes that get up to 10 hours every night and some about 4 hours every night. The 4 hours a night is not something that happens every night but it can happen after a competition.

How much insights do you have into what amateur athletes get in terms of sleep? Do they typically get enough sleep? What about the quality of their sleep?

18:25 -

  • Generally, we do see some shorter amounts of sleep in some of these individuals.​
  • Sometimes we see a high-quality of sleep. So maybe they’ve gotten used to not sleeping very much.
  • The busier we are, the more things we try to fit in into our lives, the one thing that we decrease is sleep. And that’s probably the one thing that we shouldn’t be decreasing in terms of our overall performance as well as our health.
  • Mood is one thing that is very strongly influenced by sleep. Some people get grumpy, irritable, quiet, angry, and cranky. And this will affect your communication with your loved one's, family, teammates, colleagues, coach, etc.

What is the balance of quantity and quality of sleep?

20:30 -

  • It is very variable. But we do sometimes see that people that have slightly less sleep have higher quality sleep.
  • One thing that is more of an influence rather than whether they are elite or non-elite is the actual amount of training that is being done.
  • We think that the more an individual trains, the greater can their sleep be disturbed which is not what we think the body will do. You would think that the harder you train, the more recovery that you need.
  • This is certainly true to the general population that regularly exercises 3-4 times a week, half an hour to an hour in the gym, nothing too intense. They will actually sleep quite well.
  • When you start to build up and have higher intensities, increased muscle damage, bigger volumes, then you can start to see issues around sleep. This can be because of sore and tired muscles. It can be associated with the kind of stress that’s around the training and around performance in competition.
  • Then when you get up to the really elite level, there can also be issues around sleep because of competition stress and higher training volumes.
"One thing that we’ve learned over the years is that fatigue doesn’t equal sleepiness."

What about electronic devices before bed?

23:44 -

  • This is probably the biggest issue that we have in terms of working with the athletes. There are a couple of issues around the electronic devices.​
  • First of all is that they have blue wavelength of light and this affects our body clock the most. The body clock is in our brain and it’s stimulated by that. That’s why we’re obliged to feel awake when it’s dark when you’re actually sleepy because the body clock controls the release of melatonin. So what we’re actually doing when we’re staring at a phone right before we go to bed is send that blue light to the body clock and say, “Hey, it’s light, don’t release melatonin or release less melatonin”. Therefore people become less sleepy.
  • The other thing is that most of the phone use that we do is social media use which is interactive. The more followers you have, the more famous you are, the more interactions that you will have which can be good or bad. So, an hour before bed we want no light and we don’t want a whole lot of mental stimulation from using our phone, particularly with social media.
  • For us, we’ve accepted to a certain extent that people are going to be on their phones before they go to bed. It’s pretty much what everybody does even though we don’t think they should. Therefore we encourage them to use the night shift mode on the Apple phones which makes the screen orange to block out a bit of that blue light.
  • Another thing is we do see athletes streaming. A lot of people have Netflix that you can watch on your laptop. Again, with the light quite close to the face.
  • For us, we are really trying to encourage people to use their time wisely and use their time sleeping rather use it on social media or watching movies.

Can you give us an overview on the role of nutrition for recovery?

26:27 -

  • Nutrition has been one of those things that has been researched a lot.
  • We know that nutrition is one of the foundations of recovery. Rehydrating, repairing, refueling using carbohydrates and using protein for muscle repair.
  • Nutrition is also important for the immune system. People are more likely to get sick when they’ve got a reduced levels of carbohydrate.
  • We know that protein can be used in a lot of ways, it’s not just about muscle, it’s about ligaments and tendons as well.
  • Nutrition is especially important when you want to back up and to be able to do high-quality sessions repeatedly.

For post-workout nutrition, is there such a thing as a window of opportunity? And if so, how long is it?

28:36 -

  • Yes there is. It does seem to depend a little bit on whether you’re consuming carbohydrate or protein, whether you’re rehydrating, and what the goal is.
  • For general recovery, within 1 hour post-exercise is a really beneficial time to refuel.​

Is night protein like casein useful and for whom?

29:24 -

  • I have been involved in a study that’s looking at protein pre-sleep, and that definitely has been shown to be beneficial for overnight muscle protein synthesis.
  • So, we've been showing that it can be useful for the building of muscle overnight because if you think about it, that is a long period of time to be fasting. If you can give your body protein before sleep, that can be beneficial.​
  • During those studies we found that it didn’t impair sleep, it didn’t enhance sleep either.
  • For individuals who need fast muscle repair because they’ve got some damage, taking protein pre-sleep can be particularly beneficial.

What is the current status of hydrotherapy?

30:36 -

  • Over the last 10 years, most of the research has been around acute recovery. For example, do a session on the bike, then you have a 4-hour break, and then you do another session on the bike. Let’s do some sort of hydrotherapy in between and see what happens to your performance.
  • And if you look at the acute research, a time-frame of anywhere between 30 minutes to 24-48 hours after exercise, most of the research in terms of looking at reviews and their analyses, shows that it is beneficial. So acutely, there are small, positive benefits of hydrotherapy.
  • If I’m working with swimmers and they have an 8-day meet, we will throw lots of hydrotherapy at them.
  • The question that’s becoming more interesting now is adaptation. So, can you do too much recovery? And do you really want to be doing hydrotherapy all the time in the training block? Because, don’t you want to be fatigued? Don’t you want to have muscle damage to kind of drive the adaptation process?
  • There has been some work in this area. Unfortunately, the work has tended to be in non-trained athletes training twice a week which is maybe not relevant for us.
  • So we’ve got a couple of studies that are going on now to look at this idea of chronic use of hydrotherapy to determine if it is good or bad.
  • The two sides of the story are, if you are a triathlete and you’re training all the time, if you’re doing hydrotherapy 3-4 times a week, can that help you be less sore and tired so you can do more quality sessions?
  • The other side of the story is are you dampening adaptation by doing too much recovery and having less damage and soreness?
  • If you look at the evidence out there, the studies that show that hydrotherapy may be bad for adaptation is typically in not highly trained athletes. Generally, you’ll see that in strength training.
  • Whereas, other studies that are around cycling tend to show that repeated recovery is good. The weight or resistance training studies tend to show that it may dampen adaptation.
  • So the principle now around hydrotherapy is like how we periodize training and nutrition. We should be thinking about periodizing recovery.

What are the general guidelines on ice baths as compared to contrast baths, and the different forms of hydrotherapy?

34:34 -

  • All the research that has been done on adaptation has been done in cold water.​
  • I actually think that for the contrast baths we may see completely different results.
  • Maybe contrast with the incorporation of the heat in there has less of an effect.
  • From an acute perspective, both contrast and cold water immersion seem to be effective.
  • If I was working with athletes in the heat where warm weather is an issue, which is more often than not in Australia, we tend to use more of the ice bath approach rather than the spa and sauna type approach. Whereas in the northern hemisphere in winter, I’ll be encouraging people to use spa and sauna as a recovery method.

Can you do hydrotherapy even in the shower or do you need a bath?

36:03 -​

  • We have done some research comparing showers and baths and showers do seem effective.​
  • What you don’t get in the shower is the hydrostatic pressure. Water has a lot of pressure when you’re submerged in it. But with the shower you get the temperature changes.

What about mental recovery?

37:02 -​

  • It’s something that’s become interesting for us. We hear athletes say to us, “Physically I feel recovered but I just feel mentally exhausted.”​
  • Maybe that’s from the stress of the competition, or lots of travel, or outside stress.
  • The first step is asking the right questions when it comes to mental fatigue. Athletes understand when we talk about fatigue and tiredness from a physical point of view, but we need to get the mental side of things as well.
  • Then we need to understand what we can do about it. Do things like meditation, relaxation, mindfulness work. They are probably quite effective.
  • The issue with a lot of athletes is if they are actually interested in doing that. Or maybe they don’t think they have the time to do it.
  • Sleep again is one of the interventions that can bring the athletes back from mental fatigue.

Rapid-fire questions

39:31 -

Favorite book, blog, or resource related to endurance sports or to your field of expertise:

  • Twitter – I get up-to-date, good information quickly from Twitter by following the right people.

A person in triathlon, endurance sports, or your field of research that you admire:

Personal habit that helped achieve success:

  • Not procrastinating​

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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