Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation was something I was pretty anxious about when I first started this sport.  However, I can safely say that it has not been a problem with my races to date.  Admittedly they’ve been short enough to go without sleep (3 x 320km and 1 x 505km), but I do know of racers who did have a nap and whose performance suffered as a consequence.

This is my list of things to do to stave off sleep, at least for these shorter events.  I’ve put them in order of importance from my own experience.  Also included is sensible advice that I’ve read from minds better than mine, a great source of which was a discussion thread in the Ultracycling Facebook group.

  • Caffeine!  Don’t knock this; it’s pretty powerful stuff.  One of the things my four races had in common was that they were powered by latte-flavoured Perpeteum, this being my only food source.  Sleep not being a great problem in these races can’t just be a coincidence!  However, do be careful not to over-do the caffeine.  This partly contributed to my DNF last November.
  • Keep up with that fuelling!  I’m sure that there is a strong relationship between poor fuelling and tiredness.  So keep up a good, constant food intake.  And that fuel should definitely not include simple sugars, as they will guarantee a post-high let down and tiredness.
  • A really obvious one – be as fit as you can!  A lot of tiredness in racing is the result of physical exhaustion.
  • Keep warm!  Being cold unnecessarily adds to your physical tiredness.  It also contributes to sleepiness.
  • Don’t get too physically tired!  A strange thing to say for endurance racing.  However, if possible, your riding should be at as measured and even a pace as possible.  Going hard out for periods will not only exhaust you, it will make you want to curl up by the side of the road and doze.
  • Keep your mind active!  For several reasons, this was pretty easy for me in my races.  First, I found the hilly terrains testing and they definitely kept me focussed.  It’s hard to fall asleep on an undulating course with steep climbs and descents.  Second, it tended to be no more than 2-3 hours before I met up with Helen again, no matter how briefly, and it’s a great thing to look forward to.  Third, other riders on the course added distraction.  Fourth, I also tried to be as interested in scenery and in things happening around me as I could.  Fifth, riding through pain and discomfort is pretty distracting too!  Other suggestions I’ve come across are: mix your riding up, e.g. sometimes standing out of the pedal; and munch on something.
  • Keep up that sense of urgency!  This is partly related to the previous point.  Even if you have long periods by yourself, remember that it is a race.  There will be a person slightly in front of you and one slightly behind you.  You definitely don’t want to meet the latter.  Realizing this will keep you focussed and reduce the chance of your mind wandering.
  • Get used to being tired!  Unfortunately, being a full-time worker has meant that my training often comes at the expense of sleep.  However, I see this as useful training in itself.  Not all that healthy though! 
  • Power nap!  I’m not sure about this one.  I don’t think we should be too shy of short breaks and they have definitely helped me on some long training rides.  But I have a great fear of them being an excuse and becoming the beginning of the end.  Who knows how a tired, befuddled mind will use them.  But that’s just something for me to watch out for.  Obviously self-awareness and self-discipline are vital.
  • Experience sleep deprivation on long rides!  This will not help you prevent it, but it will give you an idea of how you react to it.  You can then better prepare to combat it or deal with the consequences.
  • Get lots of sleep in the days leading up to the race.  This is something that has always eluded me, but it’s at the top of some people’s lists.  And it does make sense.

I’m having another crack at the 620km Maxi Enduro this November, which will be my longest to date.  It’ll be interesting to see how things go sleep-wise, but I’m feeling pretty confident.  However, the 1010km race next March will be a different story.  Then I will need to sleep and will have to focus on how best to manage it.  In the end, it will probably be a case of learning by painful experience.