Most of us live chronically deprived of sleep. Just because you’re a hiker doesn’t mean you aren’t above getting caught in the rat race of working late or binging the latest streaming sensation and sacrificing your sleep time. You might succumb to the coffee and wine culture and use caffeine to wake you up during the day and alcohol to slow you down at night. Meanwhile, your body loses precious sleep, and your health slowly declines.
Why is sleep important for hikers?
During sleep, your body stops doing all the external work, and the internal heavy-lifting begins. Sleep triggers the production of important hormones that impact feelings of hunger and satiety, energy levels, nutrition absorption, immunity, blood pressure regulation, reproduction, growth and tissue repair, risk of chronic disease, mood, and the ability to make good decisions. Let’s look at how a few of these impact your hiking.
1. Hunger and satiety. – Being sleep-deprived increases your cravings for junk food. Since sleep deprivation clouds your judgment, you’re more likely to give in to these cravings when you haven’t had much sleep and not choose foods that support your training. Lack of sleep also affects the levels of the hormone that help you feel full and satisfied, thus promoting over-eating.
2. Energy levels. – Some extreme examples of sleep deprivation are jet lag and taking care of a newborn baby or puppy. However, smaller sleep deficits, when cumulative, can result in the same feelings of low energy. When you’re feeling a bit tired, you’re less likely to have the stamina you need for longer, more challenging hikes. Your body will have to work harder to keep up, and you might enjoy it less because it feels like more of a struggle.
3. Immunity. – Feeling run down and like you catch every sickness that passes you by? In this day and age of ever-changing pandemics, your immune system has never been more important. Sleep debt compromises your immune system, so getting a full night’s sleep promotes your current and future health keeping you ready for the trail!
4. Growth and tissue repair. – Sleep triggers the release of hormones, such as testosterone, growth hormone, and cortisol, that combine to repair and build muscle. If you’re putting time into training for hiking but not seeing the increase in strength or muscle size that you expect, or, finding it hard to recover from long challenging hikes, you may not be getting enough sleep.
5. Mood. – Without adequate sleep, you can become moody, snappy, anxious, and even depressed. Feeling anxious about an upcoming hike or not finding the same joy in being on the trail with your hiking friends? Consider getting a few more hours of sleep each night.
6. Cognitive ability. – Lack of sleep impairs your entire nervous system. Think of it like the battery in a flashlight. When your sleep battery is low, your body is slow to turn on, and the actions might be (dim)inished. It takes longer for your nervous system to send signals for your body to react to things like loss of balance or a low tree limb. The result is you might fall or fail to duck in time. You might also experience brain fog or slow decision-making. Being less than fully alert might cause you to take a wrong turn, get lost, or make a fatal mistake like walking too close to a ledge or cliff.
How to get better sleep
You’ve probably heard it all before, but if you’re not getting optimal sleep, these recommendations deserve repeating.
1. Follow a set bedtime routine. – Keeping your bedtime at roughly the same time every night trains your body to relax and feel sleepy. Doing the same calming activities at bedtime develops a Pavlovian response and allows you to start shutting down. Right before bed is not the time to take one more peek at your email or start reviewing your to-do list for the next day. Sign off on all electronics about an hour before bedtime. While you might feel that scrolling Insta is relaxing, the blue light emitted by your screen prevents your natural sleep chemicals, like melatonin, from rising and making you feel sleepy.
2. Optimize your sleep environment. – A dark room with a cooler temperature is optimal for sleep. Even a small amount of light from a bright clock or street lamp can impact the quality of your sleep and your body’s hormonal responses. Do you need a new pillow or fresh sheets? Making your bed as comfy as possible helps you want to get into it and relax.
3. Have a small protein-rich snack before bed. – You want to avoid rich, spicy, and sugar-laden foods while giving your body a protein boost to help fuel the muscle and tissue repair work it does while you snooze. One suggestion is an eight to 10 ounce protein shake. There are even some formulations that include supplements like magnesium and melatonin that promote sleep and recovery.
4. Monitor your sleep. – You don’t need fancy equipment or apps (although there are plenty out there if you want more granular information) to keep track of your sleep. Simply ask yourself each morning, “On a scale of one to 10, how rested do I feel?” Record your answer along with how long you slept in the notes on your phone or a small bedside journal. At night, jot down how your energy level was throughout the day. You may start noticing trends like eating a heavy meal late at night, drinking caffeine in the afternoon, or having a glass or more of wine at dinner impacts your restfulness and your energy the next day.
5. Develop a consistent wake-up time. – And speaking of mornings, getting up at the same time every day allows you to feel appropriately tired at your desired bedtime.
6. Nap if needed. – If getting a full seven to eight hours a night isn’t possible, try adding a short nap in the early afternoon. Twenty to 30 minutes is all you need to recharge and provide your body with extra downtime. Sleeping much more might interfere with your nighttime sleepiness.
If you’re ready to maximize your health and improve your hiking by becoming a stronger, well-rested, more confident hiker, let’s talk! Schedule a consultation to find out how The Healthy Hiker Training Program can help.