Dude. This Axe Body Spray had the opposite affect! Image courtesy of Mike Powell/Lifesize/Thinkstock.

I was talking to a friend about things a person can do to improve triathlon performance. It involves something I like to call, “Free Speed”.

It’s free because it doesn’t involve spending money and it presumes the athlete puts in the required training. It excludes things like $8,000 wind-cheating time-trial bikes, $2000 carbon wheels, $800 wet suits, $300 teardrop helmets, or $150 racing flats.

It also doesn’t require work.

So, while the following things are arguably “free,” it also excludes things like fine-tuning your body position in the swim and the bike, losing weight for cycling and running particularly for climbing hilly events, managing proper nutrition and hydration, using the most optimum breathing technique (i.e., belly breathing), and visualizing a successful race.

The free speed I’m talking about comes about from…..sleep. That’s right. Sleep.

There are many articles that talk about the effect of lack of sleep on performance. I remember reading one that described how it affects driving performance. It found that lack of sleep is very similar to driving under the influence of alcohol.

I think we intuitively know how lack of sleep can affect what we do every day.

Take this for example. I keep a journal and log how many hours of sleep I get every night. In the last year, I averaged about 5.5 hours a night. It’s no wonder I need a caffeine buzz when I get to work in the morning. It gets worse after lunch!

If that’s what it can do to mental facilities can you imagine what it does to bodies?

Sleep and rest are important because this is when the body literally re-charges. It’s when muscles repair, rebuild, and strengthen. This is when the body adapts to training and increasing workloads. It is also when it replenishes energy stores and repairs damaged tissue.

Without it, the body continues to break down.

Some of the symptoms of overtraining and lack of rest and sleep include feeling weak, unmotivated, and sometimes even depressed. It also results in decreasing performance levels and increasing risk if illness and injury. It may also result in weight gain.

So how does it affect sports performance?

In a Runner’s magazine article, Melanie MacManus documents the plight of a runner who sought to improve his marathon time of 3:34. He followed the path to improvement that most athletes follow:  He worked harder. He also started skipping rest days.

The result: his time got worse.

Eve Van Cauter, Ph.D., from the University of Chicago Medical School, studied the adverse effects of lack of sleep on sports performance. Her conclusion was sleep deprivation can negatively impact physiology that is critical for athletic performance.

She is vibing you to clean the mess up in the garage. But sleep for better endurance sport performance is much more important. Image courtesy of Stockbyte/Thinkstock.

Lack of sleep over a period of time results in increased stress hormone (cortisol) levels. It also results in decreased growth hormone levels which are necessary for tissue repair and decreased glycogen reserves which mean less energy.

While her study focused on the ill effects of the lack of rest and sleep, Cheri Mah, a researcher in the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, conducted a study that showed how basketball players could improve their performance by, you guessed it, sleeping more.

Here’s what she did.

She first looked into the effect of sleep on undergraduate students cognitive functions. By chance, some were also swimmers. Not only did they do better with their studies but they also beat their personal swim records.

So, she expanded her study to correlate sleep and athletic performance.

What she found was by increasing sleep time by at least an hour over a three-week period, basketball players improved in each performance metric: faster sprints and more accurate shooting both with free-throws and field goals. In addition, fatigue levels decreased and athletes reported improved practices and games.

Her conclusion was sleep improves athletic performance. Equally important, it needs to be prioritized over a long period of time, not just the night before game day.

So, what does this all mean particularly for recreational triathletes?

A low amount of glycogen stored in the body means that as endurance events go beyond 90-minutes the body starts to slow down. This when the body starts to experiences the lack of glycogen more commonly known as “bonking” or “hitting the wall.”

This feeling is compounded as event distances increase to the half iron, iron, and ultra distances. That’s why managing glycogen stores and absorption rates are so critical. Lack of sleep means you start with a tank that’s not completely full and an engine that can’t burn the fuel fast enough.

In addition, increased stress hormone levels impair tissue repair and growth. This could explain why some athletes who don’t sleep enough constantly feel tired. It’s why it’s hard to get a quality work-out.  Muscles haven’t completely repaired and the body just can’t work harder.

Finally, you can’t cram sleep.

It is just as important to prioritize sleep as with training particularly during the build period when duration and intensity of workouts increase. The true benefit comes with consistency—sleep isn’t something you can miss all week and fit into one weekend!

So, believe it or not, by simply sleeping more you’ll feel less tired, be able to push harder, and the quality of your workouts and races will improve. Yes, you essentially get: free speed.



SamG is a middle-of-the-pack recreational triathlete. Overweight and out of shape, he got into triathlons in 2006, starting with the shorter Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. He has since completed a number of half-iron distance (70.3 miles) and a full-ironman distance triathlon (140.6 mile).