It’s not Greek, it’s Circadian Leave a comment

It’s not Greek, it’s Circadian

When your sports or exercise routine is rolling along nicely, you’ll often have those sessions where just maybe you’re finally getting somewhere. You catch a glimpse of a whole new level you might reach. And so often we do more of the same, inspired by one of those moments where you honestly just feel fit and strong. We’re enthused, and that’s logical, right? You’re starting to make noticeable gains in this incredibly slow process of physical moulding and well-being, so it’s nothing but logic that more of the same will equal more of the same.

And then, as often, boom! Suddenly you’re feeling a session like you did it this morning already. How is it possible, with nothing having changed, that suddenly our performance is strained and we feel back at square one? We hate that, right? That’s not how it is in the movies. That’s not the Karate Kid. That’s not The Last Samurai! Within age and individual limits, we do something, we get better, and we get great, right?

Baboons roost, but maybe we should too

If we look at primate behaviour, most apes in the late afternoon trek to a roost or den to sleep at night. Yes, we’d also sleep pretty quickly if lions and especially leopards wanted to shred us from sunset onwards, but the point is they, like us, are diurnal. None of us are night time champions. We are not nocturnal beings.

That’s more than just a dependence on sight being our primary sense. It’s in our flesh and blood. Indeed, scientists refer to the circadian rhythm that governs all life on earth, down to fungi. It’s the documented behaviour of life in response to the rising and setting of the earth’s star. When you realise that we’re hardwired to sleep and rise with the sun, it can give you a depth of understanding about your own abilities, and how to sustain and improve them. More than simply getting enough sleep, getting “indulgent” early sleep is a rich source of sports performance too. The circadian rhythm involves endogenous processes. This means your body enacts certain processes at certain times of the day or night. Your body expels toxins and prepares waste handling around 4am in the morning, for example. Likewise, your body will prepare you in a myriad of ways for the coming day, and the night that follows. Day in and day out, these bodily rhythms are hardwired into us and play out constantly. Although slightly amenable to environmental influences, they remain broadly unchanged our entire lives, sticking to the circadian rhythm that’s as old as the planet.

Not convinced? Ask any parent on earth just how badly the ruse of shipping the kids off to bed early pays back. Children are bouncing on your head at 5am and, for that matter, just look at kids. See how much constant energy they often exude around those haggard adults? Sufficient and early sleep is a huge contributor to that.

Respect the monkey

In a nutshell, even a slight shift towards a bedtime an hour earlier and an awakening likewise, is a broad insurance policy that will allow you to optimise your activity and eliminate those inexplicable “draggy” sessions. We all know them, when our routine hasn’t changed but we’re nonetheless stiff and sore, seemingly unrecuperated from the last time. Unfortunately, the body we have to work with still follows the sun into slumber, no matter that we have a vibrant night life and get by on around six hours of sleep only. Again, it’s not only about enough sleep, it’s about sleeping at the right time.

In the sports fraternity, suggesting that an hour spent sleeping is better than an hour spent training, is often heresy. But if you can skew your activities – especially strenuous ones – towards the sun, or rather daytime, there’s no compromise involved, you’ll only benefit. It doesn’t mean your evening workout routine has to suffer, it just means we can all optimise our health and fitness by not imaging the day done when you get out of gym or off the court or field at 8 pm. The day was done when the sun set, and our bodies know it. So don’t stretch that evening too far, that’s all. Even if you can’t slow down until 9 pm, as long as you’re asleep by 9.30 pm, you’ll really start feeling the difference.

For many, such an even minor adjustment might seem to ruin their habitual evening routines or threaten an imagined late night productivity. For those in a healthy (circadian) rhythm already, they wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Important other considerations

Hand in hand with sleeping and rising earlier, go other important inputs:

  • Know your limits and avoid over-training. A piano keyboard is black and white. Don’t forget the white keys among the black. In other words, gains in bulk, fitness or flexibility are connected by the space in between. Rest and recuperation are essential – indeed, they are the moments in which we accumulate the gains – and they’re most beneficial to you when you are aware of your body’s natural rhythms.
  • Eat healthily, take supplements judiciously (i.e. not to offset a too-strenuous lifestyle) and minimise classic stimulants like coffee
  • Try to make and stick to a training schedule. Occasional bursts of energy are fine, but you should know more or less how many hours in a week you plan to play sports or train.
  • Let your body guide you. Are you experiencing dull fatigue, a general weakness in sessions, erratic sleep, aches and pains, poor concentration, and even a short-temper? These are all symptoms of over-training in active people, ones most of us avoid most of the time. Combined with a late sleeping behaviour, however, they can become pronounced.

A small tolerance on your part to give yourself a break regularly, taking time off from everything, and simply staying aware that you won’t “lose” your gains overnight, all go a long way towards genuine health. Absolutely, enough sleep is essential. But enough sleep at the right time is superb. Forcing yourself to sleep around 8 pm every night might seem like a death sentence, but it might also just be the ticket to really next-level performance in the future.

Everyone is different, although we’re all the same in terms of how the day-night cycle impacts our physiological being. Perhaps adopting such a Spartan routine will give you few noticeable results. That’s unlikely, however, as the vast majority (as in almost everyone) that make an effort to respect their body’s preferences on internally scheduled activities, awake every day feeling like a million dollars.


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