better sleep

Time-Crunched Athlete Guide to Better Sleep

Topics Covered In This Episode:

  • Stages of sleep
  • nREM vs. REM sleep
  • How you sleep when physically tired vs. emotionally fatigued
  • Health implications of sleep deprivation
  • Role of sleep in injury prevention
  • How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep
  • Keys for optimizing sleep hygiene


Corrine Malcolm has been a CTS Coach for more than 5 years and holds a B.S. in Health and Human Performance. She’s a professional ultrarunner, a top ten Western States finisher, and a former U.S. Biathlon National Team member.

Have questions you want Corrine to cover in a podcast? Email her at


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Episode Transcription:

Please note that this is an automated transcription and may contain errors. Please refer to the episode audio for clarification.

Corrine Malcolm (00:01):

All right. All right. I am your host coach Corrine Malcolm. And I’m gonna continue on this kind of accidental mini series we have rolling over the last couple weeks. And today I’m gonna tackle a topic that’s near and dear to many of our hearts that being sleep, the thing that maybe if you’re like me, you would love a little bit more of, or maybe you’re trying to weigh the pros and cons of getting a little bit less of it so that you can sneak one or two more new things into your day. Couple of weeks ago, I alluded to sleep when we talked about international travel and traveling to big races abroad. And then we kind of touched on it again a little bit when we were discussing the immune system function. So why is sleep always the common denominator again and again when it comes to performance, when it comes to recovery, when it comes to, to getting to and from where we need to be?

Corrine Malcolm (00:56):

Well, there’s a lot of science that we now have behind sleep, and that’s kinda what we’re gonna get into today. So I’m gonna wager that 99% of you listening are not full-time athletes, which means you juggle, you juggle careers, family, social lives, your athletic goals. And again, if you’re like me, that means you’re often left looking for a few extra hours in your day. And often the easiest place to get them is by cutting a little bit of sleep here or a little bit of sleep there because you have to stay up late to respond to some more emails or you’re getting up extra early to sneak in that slightly longer run before your workday starts, before you have to bring your kids to school. It’s the quote unquote, I’m using air quotes here. It’s the easy sacrifice. But sleep is important not only for maintaining your cognitive function, but also your physical function and your metabolic processes.

Corrine Malcolm (01:50):

And it has a great impact, a great psychological impact on your mood. Actually prominent researchers in the area, sleep science, suggest that adults require a good seven hours of sleep and night to maintain healthy cognitive function. And that doesn’t even really account for the athletic adult, the athletic individual, someone who has extra demands put on their day. So while you know we’re gonna dive into it, now, you know what, what’s going on when we sleep? Why is it so important? Both for your general health and then specifically for athletes. And then we’ll talk a little bit about suggestions for, you know, how to make sure you’re, you’re really capitalizing on sleep. Cuz I think it’s the if you’re gonna be a biohacker, sleep’s the real biohack. So while sleep might feel like powering down, right, you’re, you’re ending everything for the day. There’s actually a lot going on when you’re asleep. It’s this time of regulating important functions including regulating cortisol, testosterone, human growth hormone, glucose metabolism, and is incredibly beneficial to brain health. And that’s kind of some newer science in the past decade that I personally think is like extra, extra

Corrine Malcolm (02:58):

Fascinating. And if we’re gonna fear monger you into sleeping more, it’s probably gonna be for the brain health thing. So we’ll get to that at the very end. So broadly, you know, kind of going back to basics, going back to my freshman biology class that you all have agreed to join, suddenly there are two main types of sleep. The first one is called non rapid eye movement sleep or end REM sleep. And that sleep is generally then further divided into four main stages of sleep. You’ve probably heard of them, you know, stage one, stage two, et cetera, and it’s critical for physical recovery. And then there’s the sleep that you’ve probably heard a lot more about, which is rapid eye movement sleep or REM sleep. And this is where dreams take place or at least where dreams often take place. So let’s talk a little bit more about what are the four stages of N REM sleep.

Corrine Malcolm (03:46):

And if you’re using something like an A ring or a whoop band or any sort of wearable device it’s using to track sleep, some of them are getting a little bit better at not only telling the difference between n rem and REM sleep, but also between some of the sleep stages. It’s not perfect, but it is getting a little bit better. So stage one is light sleep, it’s short-lived and it generally only persists for one to seven minutes. From there you’re gonna move into stage two sleep and it’s still fairly light sleep, but it lasts a little bit longer, you’re getting a little bit deeper and that’s about 10 to 20 minutes stages three and four we kind of group together. It’s really actually hard to tell these stages apart. If you’re using a wearable for this and they’re both considered deep sleep.

Corrine Malcolm (04:30):

So you’ve moved from light sleep down into deep sleep, it’s kind of like you’re sinking into it. And this is often as referred to as slow wave sleep. And during this time it’s, you know, all your normal functions kind of slow down as well. You’re gonna have a decrease in blood pressure breathing rate and heart rate begins to slow. So really it’s this, this easing in, and this generally lasts for 20 to 40 minutes, but there is a major difference between stages three and four, and that is when it comes to human growth hormone. So stage three is responsible for when you release peak amounts of human growth hormone. And this is crucial, it’s critical for growth and recovery. And we’ll touch on that portion again a little bit later on. Kind of reiterate its importance. So those are your four stages of nru, and after that you generally enter a cycle of 30 to 40 minutes of REM sleep.

Corrine Malcolm (05:26):

During this time, during REM sleep, that rapid eye movement sleep, your brain’s a little bit more active, your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, body temperature, all rise. And again, this is where you dream throughout the night. As you go through these cycles your REM cycle’s actually lengthening. So every time you go into REM it’s generally a little bit longer and a little bit longer. And the longest one generally happens during the early morning hours, which might be why you remember those dreams the most. Because once again, this is the streaming stage and it’s kind gonna lead into you waking up most nights your sleep is gonna be about 75 to 80% n rem and about 20 to 25% rem. This can change a little bit though when you’re physically exhausted or you’re mentally exhausted, or when you’re a little bit sleep deprived, it can actually shift one way or the other and you can have some dysregulation there.

Corrine Malcolm (06:14):

You can actually lose REM sleep when with, with sleep deprivation, which is super interesting and maybe a little tangential, but essentially n rem sleep stages later stages are when most of your physical recovery and rejuvenation take place, whereas REM sleep is where your brains cognitive and mental capacity recovery occurs. And this explains why when you’re physically tired, you don’t dream much, right? You’re gonna have much shorter REM cycles and much longer end REM cycles. And then when you’re mentally fatigued, you oftentimes dream more and you’re gonna have shorter end REM and longer REM cycles. And I’m sure some of you have experienced that in in times of high mental exhaustion and mental stress and then hot times of high physical exhaustion and physical stress. I know like school being in a class does that to me for sure. Something that we’ve talked about a little bit, particularly with travel and a little bit with the immune system is the circadian rhythm.

Corrine Malcolm (07:12):

Again, your circadian rhythm is your 24 hour internal clock. And this is kind of you site, this is how you cycle between sleepiness and alertness and it’s all controlled by your hypothalamus, which is the brain’s regulator, and it’s a very natural rhythm and it’s determined both by your genetics. So you know, everyone’s cycle can be a little bit different and it’s also determined by the environment. And these internal rhythms, again, are acutely responsive and controlled by things like photic cues or environmental light changes, right? Gets dark early, gets light early, etc. When you time, when you travel different time zones, getting out in the sun first thing helps your circadian rhythms start to shift. Gastrointestinal signaling is the big part of this. That’s in and around eating and eating up the right times. And then temperature changes are another big component of that.

Corrine Malcolm (08:03):

And so when you’re circadian rhythms off, sleep is gonna be impacted, but again, your circadian rhythm is tied to all those things that are all of the like things that cortisol that we’re about to talk a little bit more about where kind of how and why they’re regulated and how and why and when they happen. So let’s talk a little bit about sleep deprivation and, and kind of the big health impacts of, of sleep deprivation. So even one night of altered sleep, which is as little as just two or two and a half hours, less than normal, you know, that was me just a couple nights ago even can cause significant deficits in how your brain and body function. And I think we’ve all probably experienced that after a night of poor sleep. And this also causes your immune system to decre to decrease both.

Corrine Malcolm (08:51):

The natural killer cell activity and your cytokine particularly cytokine interleukin six are I L six. It, it decreases kind of the amounts that are circulating, which impairs your immune system. And again, those natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell that help fight viral infections. And I L six or interleukin six is produced by your immune system and helps to fight inflammation and infection. This is why sleep and being sleep deprived or sleep impaired can actually directly impact your immune system. The other big thing that a little bit of altered sleep, again, travel on your sac ca rhythm can fall into this. It’s the impacts that it has on your cortisol levels. And when we think of cortisol, we think of the stress hormone, but cortisol is involved in a whole lot more than that. It’s cortisol specifically the cycling amount of cortisol is critical for a multitude of physiological functions including bone strength, structure and function and also the nervous system and immune system function.

Corrine Malcolm (09:52):

It also is responsible for the breakdown of macronutrients like fats, carbohydrates, and protein. So again, it affects all these processes, it affects you structurally, it affects you metabolically, it affects your nervous system. So really, really important. So when your cortisol levels are too high, that can create a really big problem for you, including blocking serotonin receptors, which in turn down regulates melatonin secretion, which further impairs sleep. With impaired sleep, you’re gonna prevent human growth hormone release. And once again, you know, there’s kind of just like this cascading effect happening including, you know, the further inhab like it further inhibits adequate glycogen stores being replenished which over time compromises your energy supply and will inhibit muscle repair and recovery. So expanding a little bit more, we know, you know, not only is it affecting you structurally you metabolically you or your nervous system, it also impairs your cognitive function, right?

Corrine Malcolm (10:54):

We, we felt that we felt that impairment in our ability to use our brains well. And one of the interesting things, I alluded to this earlier of how your brain function or your brain health is impacted is specifically kind of this new this new idea. We know that the brain is critical in both the consolidation and processing of memories and new information coming in and, and how we’re learning. But there’s also evidence in recent years that sleep has this ability to help clean the brain, which actually helps prevent against degenerative nervous system and brain diseases including dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It’s known as your glymphatic system that this is a thing that is now protective during sleep and it’s this interface between your nervous system cells or glial cells and your lymphatic system. And essentially when you sleep it picks up the waist and lushes it away.

Corrine Malcolm (11:52):

So there are a lot of broad health implications and then there are very specific sports implications that we’re gonna dive into next. But I would, I would, you know, say that there’s a lot of weight in those broad health implications. So one of the biggest sellers I can make to any athlete when I’m pitching sleep is that if you focus on getting more sleep and higher quality sleep, you have less injuries. That’s right. Sleep equals injury prevention. Once again, when I mentioned biohacking, this is what I’m talking about. This is gonna keep you healthy. We know actually that when you chronically get less than eight hours of sleep a night, that is one of the strongest indicator, strongest predictors of getting injuries. And the numbers are kind of astounding. In, in the research literature, athletes that slept less than eight hours per night were 1.7 times more likely to get injured.

Corrine Malcolm (12:47):

And this was in comparison to athletes who got more than eight hours of sleep per night. So just by getting an extra hour of sleep, huge benefits for injury prevention. And while some of this is likely linked to decreased motor function, i e when you’re sleep deprived, you’re a little less coordinated, your timing’s off. You know, there’s all those types of things. The big thing here is that actually sleep is important again, because poor sleep is gonna blunt bone and tissue repair. And remember when we, this kind of is twofold. Remember when we referenced glucose replenishment earlier and we’re talking about, you know, that being important for tissue repair, We’re also talking about that that specific n rem stage. Stage three is sleep. And we know that 95% of your daily human growth hormone is produced during and released during that stage of sleep.

Corrine Malcolm (13:39):

So glycogen synthesis, glycogen replenishment tissue, you know, tissue healing bone, bone building, all those types of things that’s happening during sleep. So, okay, the big sport implications here are predominantly gonna be on muscle repair, muscle recovery, bone health, but broader health implications go back to brain health, metabolic health it’s gonna disturb insulin, et cetera. So lots of good reasons. Maybe prioritize getting that extra hour of sleep over, cutting that hour of sleep out to try to get one more thing into your day. So how do you know if you’re getting enough sleep? There are pretty good indicators of not getting enough sleep during the day, and that’s gonna be things like feeling drowsy during the day, particularly in the early afternoon. If you fall asleep and as little or as two to three minutes, that’s called latency where there’s real, a lack of latency there.

Corrine Malcolm (14:35):

That’s not a great sign that that means that you’re a little too tired if you’re falling asleep that quickly. If you need microsleep or incredibly brief naps, like those one minute trail naps that Courtney Dewal is famous for during super ultra endurance events that’s, that’s a microsleep need. And in your normal life, that’s, that’s not a good thing. If you’re more irritable than normal, well it could be hanger. It’s also, it’s also oftentimes sleep if you take longer to learn new information and tasks than normal. And if you’re getting sick frequently, those are all indicators that maybe you need to take a look at how much sleep you’re getting and the quality of said sleep. So how can we maximize sleep if you’re worried that, you know, that’s the next step I need to get that extra hour. Things that you can do that work that are pretty easy hacks are to simply spend more time in bed.

Corrine Malcolm (15:24):

Studies have shown that increasing an athlete’s time in bed to nine hours virtually guarantees they get an average of eight hours of sleep per night. It’s a hack that I use, it’s just getting to bed earlier, right? Getting, even getting into bed even a half an hour earlier guarantees that I’m probably gonna get 15 more minutes of sleep than I would’ve otherwise. You can also add a nap when athletes don’t spend nine hours in bed overnight, but are able to add a one hour nap in the afternoon. That average is closer to that eight hours of sleep per night and generally can be protective. We call that anchor sleep overnight. And you add that all together, that can be really, really protective for an athlete. Try to eliminate panic and stress around your inability to fall asleep. That’s probably easier said than done. Kind of a big one for peoples trying to avoid alcohol within two or three hours of bedtime.

Corrine Malcolm (16:12):

We, you obviously know to avoid caffeine in that window, but also avoiding alcohol, even though alcohol might help you fall asleep, it can actually disrupt your sleep rhythm causing you to wake up earlier or more frequently throughout the night. And this is because alcohol is a diuretic and it makes you more likely to need to use the bathroom. Alcohol has also been known to suppress rem sleep that, that rapid eye movement sleep, which is oftentimes when you, which is oftentimes why when you wake up after drinking, you feel cognitively groggy, right? Cause you didn’t get that rem sleep. The, the mental, the mental healing portion of sleep that we need. You know, akin to what we mentioned earlier about circadian rhythm and things that impact it, you wanna avoid eating a large meal, right? You know, really close to bedtime. You wanna space that out a little bit because that’s gonna signal all the important things, right?

Corrine Malcolm (17:01):

The timing of meals and insulin response to food has a large impact on your circadian rhythm. So it’s gonna signal wakefulness. Particularly higher protein meals, which is undesirable for sleeping. You wanna minimize exposure to light, including blue light from electronics, right? Put that phone away, put that computer screen away, and if you can’t try utilizing blue light glasses as well after dinner time hours, that will also help with that light exposure. But your body’s really, really sensitive to light. So think about light exposure and light timing. Those are the really, really, really big ones for sleep hygiene. You can also try to have a regular bedtime and try to wake up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every day. That’s gonna try help your circadian rhythm sink. I know it sounds really, really simple, but you know, you’ve got that late night out or that early run with friends and all of a sudden you’re waking up at a different time every single day.

Corrine Malcolm (17:58):

And really important note, I guess is if you have a sleep condition or chronically have difficulties falling asleep, you should seek advice from your primary care provider and maybe even a sleep specialist. And when they did studies looking at Western European populations, it suggested that approximately 31 to 46% of the respondents had a difficulty with sleep, particularly falling asleep and staying asleep. So you’re not alone there, but talking to your medical provider is a good idea. And then kind of finally the last thing that you can try to do is utilizing a melatonin supplement. While mein won’t put you to sleep, it can help kind of get your body’s, you know, normal wakefulness like part of your clock to quiet down a little bit and, and help you kind of get rolling on sleep. And generally speaking, if you’re a troubled sleeper, you can take two milligrams or so 30 minutes before getting into bed and that will generally help with that ability to fall asleep quickly.

Corrine Malcolm (18:56):

But again, always, always, always consult your primary care provider if you’re adding any sort of supplement or medication to your routine. So while sleep is not easy or straightforward at times it’s very, very clear that we need it, we need it for our general health and wellbeing and we need it for athletic performance. So I don’t know, if you’re like me, I’ve gotta be careful with it. I’ve gotta make sure that I get to bed at a reasonable hour, that I get up at a reasonable hour, that I’m practicing my good sleep hygiene so that I can have healthy bones and tissues so that I can have a brain that works, which feels hard at times, but there’s a method to the madness and there’s definitely a science behind sleep and why we need it. If you enjoyed this episode, please let me know. You can reach out to me on Twitter or at my email address. Would love to hear more from you’ve got, if you have more questions on sleep. Would love to discuss this further, maybe point you in the right direction to some really interesting literature. As always, I’m Coach Kerin Malcolm and I will see you here next time on the Train, Right podcast.


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