Sleep Monsters

article048In adventure racng there is one element of the sport that terrifies even the most hardened competitor – sleep deprivation. There are many runners and triathletes who are eager to compete in an adventure race but perhaps the single biggest reason not to do so is the very idea that they could spend days without sleep.

In the early days it wasn’t uncommon to go for 30-hour periods without even a little 20-minute powernap and even to compete for 70-hours of racing with only a 90-minute sleep. When you finish a race like that, and the adrenalin has subsided, you can’t form coherent sentences and when you do get to bed it was for a 15-hour stretch.

Gone are those days. From experience and the results of research we’ve learned cunning sleep strategies. The world’s best teams win not just because they’re faster and more experienced. They sleep more than the teams behind them. Rested, they move swiftly and make less navigational errors.

Deprivation
With not much more than three hours a night over a 60-hour race, sleep deprivation and associated side effects (cognitive impairment, hallucinations, reduced physical performance, compromised immune responses and increased susceptibility to heatstroke) kick in. The Sleep Monster, a fiendish adventure racing character, appears unexpectedly, closing your eyes against your will. “It is one of those things that happens to everybody,” says Sakkie Meyer of Team Duesouth. “It doesn’t tell you when, where or what time and it happens to the best teams too.”

Sometimes you have to fight off the Sleep Monster to complete a section before a cut-off time or to reach the comforts of the transition area. Here competitors employ tactics to keep them awake.

“Keep moving. Keep cold. Stay uncomfortable and preferably be wet,” says Kevin Dold of Team Pure Adventure Wear. Dorian Wrigley, of Team His People, prefers warmth: “Make sure you are warm and dry – being cold and wet makes you just want to find a good spot and hunker down”.

For others, mental stimulation works. “I find you have to keep your brain active to stay awake for long periods,” says Swazi Xtreme race director Darron Raw. “I like to navigate in a team for that exact reason. It allows reading, checking calculating and continuous thinking. If I am just following the monotony puts me to sleep quickly.”

You’ve probably found that when you’re at home watching telly you’ll be ready for bed before midnight but if you’re at a party, you can keep going till dawn. Adventure racing is like that: Adrenalin and the novelty of racing through the night are powerful stimulants.

Going to sleep
When you do eventually get a chance to sleep, turn to science. Studies have shown a night of sleep to consist of a number of sleep cycles, each lasting 90-minutes on average. In athletes and sleep-deprived people, the duration of the deeper sleep phases within each cycle – during which the body recovers from fatigue, repairs muscles and cells and replenishes its energy – are increased. Based on these findings, teams prefer to sleep in 90-minute blocks (1.5hrs, 3hrs, 4.5hrs) to benefit from complete sleep cycles and the restorative phases.

It makes good sense to sleep in a transition area where your support crew has set up tents, mattresses and warm sleeping bags. Rather log three hours of quality sleep where you’re warm and comfortable than four hours of semi-sleep out in the cold.

Finally, plan to sleep in the early hours of morning so that you can wake up with the sun. “We usually time it such that we wake up as it gets light. This tricks your brain into thinking its had a full night’s sleep,” says Evan Price of Team Tension Structures.

No banking
You can’t bank sleep but you can make certain that you go into each race well rested. If your sleep levels are saturated, you’ll tolerate deprivation better, will be less likely to get ill after the event and will recover far faster from sleep deficit. Zzzzz..

In adventure racng there is one element of the sport that terrifies even the most hardened competitor – sleep deprivation. There are many runners and triathletes who are eager to compete in an adventure race but perhaps the single biggest reason not to do so is the very idea that they could spend days without sleep.

In the early days it wasn’t uncommon to go for 30-hour periods without even a little 20-minute powernap and even to compete for 70-hours of racing with only a 90-minute sleep. When you finish a race like that, and the adrenalin has subsided, you can’t form coherent sentences and when you do get to bed it was for a 15-hour stretch.

Gone are those days. From experience and the results of research we’ve learned cunning sleep strategies. The world’s best teams win not just because they’re faster and more experienced. They sleep more than the teams behind them. Rested, they move swiftly and make less navigational errors.

Deprivation
With not much more than three hours a night over a 60-hour race, sleep deprivation and associated side effects (cognitive impairment, hallucinations, reduced physical performance, compromised immune responses and increased susceptibility to heatstroke) kick in. The Sleep Monster, a fiendish adventure racing character, appears unexpectedly, closing your eyes against your will. “It is one of those things that happens to everybody,” says Sakkie Meyer of Team Duesouth. “It doesn’t tell you when, where or what time and it happens to the best teams too.”

Sometimes you have to fight off the Sleep Monster to complete a section before a cut-off time or to reach the comforts of the transition area. Here competitors employ tactics to keep them awake.

“Keep moving. Keep cold. Stay uncomfortable and preferably be wet,” says Kevin Dold of Team Pure Adventure Wear. Dorian Wrigley, of Team His People, prefers warmth: “Make sure you are warm and dry – being cold and wet makes you just want to find a good spot and hunker down”.

For others, mental stimulation works. “I find you have to keep your brain active to stay awake for long periods,” says Swazi Xtreme race director Darron Raw. “I like to navigate in a team for that exact reason. It allows reading, checking calculating and continuous thinking. If I am just following the monotony puts me to sleep quickly.”

You’ve probably found that when you’re at home watching telly you’ll be ready for bed before midnight but if you’re at a party, you can keep going till dawn. Adventure racing is like that: Adrenalin and the novelty of racing through the night are powerful stimulants.

Going to sleep
When you do eventually get a chance to sleep, turn to science. Studies have shown a night of sleep to consist of a number of sleep cycles, each lasting 90-minutes on average. In athletes and sleep-deprived people, the duration of the deeper sleep phases within each cycle – during which the body recovers from fatigue, repairs muscles and cells and replenishes its energy – are increased. Based on these findings, teams prefer to sleep in 90-minute blocks (1.5hrs, 3hrs, 4.5hrs) to benefit from complete sleep cycles and the restorative phases.

It makes good sense to sleep in a transition area where your support crew has set up tents, mattresses and warm sleeping bags. Rather log three hours of quality sleep where you’re warm and comfortable than four hours of semi-sleep out in the cold.

Finally, plan to sleep in the early hours of morning so that you can wake up with the sun. “We usually time it such that we wake up as it gets light. This tricks your brain into thinking its had a full night’s sleep,” says Evan Price of Team Tension Structures.

No banking
You can’t bank sleep but you can make certain that you go into each race well rested. If your sleep levels are saturated, you’ll tolerate deprivation better, will be less likely to get ill after the event and will recover far faster from sleep deficit. Zzzzz…

Author: Lisa de Speville | Published in Runner’s World SA, Oct 2006