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NOVEMBER 4, 2011 * Nutrition
Nutrition Edge - Vol 8

Sleep Your Way To A Better Race Time

Triathletes have to be excellent time managers as they try to juggle jobs and family responsibilities with training. All too many try to pick up additional minutes by cutting down on their sleep. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation sabotages exercise performance. Our bodies are hardwired to operate in the daytime. Studies show that as we begin to develop a sleep deficit, our ability to metabolize sugar is impaired and our blood levels of insulin increase. For a triathlete, this means less energy during the day and ultimately a less effective workout.

A second consequence of sleep deprivation for triathletes is an increase in cortisol levels. Normally, cortisol levels increase while we are sleeping, reaching a peak around 6:00 A.M. Cortisol levels rapidly decline during the daylight hours. When we are sleep deprived, however, cortisol levels remain elevated. Increased levels of cortisol lead to reduced muscle protein synthesis and increased protein degradation, and ultimately poor post-workout recovery.

What does this all mean to the time-challenged triathlete? It is self-defeating to cut down on your sleep. Doing so may give you more time to work out, but it will make your training less effective. You’re better off training a little less yet more effectively by giving yourself the 7.5 hours of sleep you need every night.

Head Hunger vs Belly Hunger

One of the reasons many of us struggle to reach our optimal racing weight is that we often eat when we are not actually hungry. Sometimes we eat simply because food is in front of us, or out of habit. Call that head hunger, or appetite, which is not to be confused with belly hunger (rumbling stomach, blood sugar crashing), which is the body’s way of telling us we truly need calories.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Firenze in Florence, Italy, suggests that losing excess body fat can be as simple as distinguishing between head hunger and belly hunger and eating only when belly hunger is present. Overweight women were trained to recognize belly hunger and instructed to eat only when they were truly hungry instead of always at planned meal times, when food happened to be available, etc.

In five months, the subjects trained to eat only when physically hungry lost more than 10 pounds, on average–far more than members of a control group who were encouraged to lose weight by means of general eating restraint. While eating by belly hunger forced the study participants to break out of familiar eating schedules, their patterns of belly hunger were more or less the same each day (although different for each individual). This enabled them to eat on a fairly consistent schedule, making the “diet” easy to sustain. Try it!