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Military sleep experts say runners need to get woke about optimizing their Zs while training

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MARCOA Media
Story by Douglas Holl on 07/24/2019
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. Training for a demanding race like the Army 10-miler requires focus, determination and solid nine to 10 hours of sleep every night, according to sleep experts at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the Army Office of the Surgeon General. Sleep is one of the three pillars of the Performance Triad, which also includes nutrition and activity.

"Sleep allows our bodies to focus on recovery and restores both our mind and muscles," said Army Lt. Col. T Scott Burch, Army System for Health Performance Triad sleep lead, OSTG. "Following a particularly strenuous training day, our body may need more time to recover and the good news is that our body will often give us signs that we need additional sleep, so plan go to bed a little earlier following high intensity workouts or post-race."

Sleep is good recovery for the brain, said Dr. Tom Balkin, a sleep expert and senior scientist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

"Aim for as much sleep as you can possibly squeeze in," said Balkin. "Seven to eight hours of sleep is average, but more is even better."

Both Balkin and Burch recommend using sleep banking as a strategy to reach peak performance before a strenuous event. Sleeping an extra one to two hours leading up to the race will "bank" extra energy, stamina and focus.

"Consider this part of your training," said Balkin. "It's not something you would do every day in your normal life, but the week before you run a marathon, get all the sleep you can. Think of it like money. The more you get, it doesn't matter when the money shows up in your bank account. The next day, the money is still in your account."

It's the goal of the Performance Triad to enable leaders to set conditions for Soldiers to optimize their sleep, activity and nutrition to improve the overall readiness of the Army, said Col. Hope Williamson-Younce, director of the Army System for Health and deputy chief of staff for public health, Army Office of the Surgeon General.

Failing to optimize sleep can lead to significant reductions in physical and cognitive performance.

"The Army has improved significantly in recognizing that sleep is a key component of a healthy lifestyle and healthy culture," said Burch. "If your duties are precluding you from optimal sleep talk with your chain of command, encourage them talk to local subject matter experts at Army Wellness Centers and see how they cannot just improve your ability to obtain optimal sleep but how they improve the physical performance of the entire unit, while also reducing injuries and having a higher percentage of Soldiers medically ready and prepared for battle."

At Fort Riley, sleep banking was put into practice by an armored brigade combat unit, said Williamson-Younce. Prior to a weeklong FTX for gunnery tables, Soldiers attended a sleep education session and participated in a "reverse PT schedule," during which the Soldiers arrived at 9 a.m. and conducted physical training at 4 p.m. This led to dramatic improvements in their Gunnery Table results. They went from an average score of 756 (qualified) without banking to an average score of 919 (distinguished) with sleep banking.

For people who have difficulty falling asleep, Burch recommends refining basic routines. Have a routine bedtime schedule, wind down the night in a calm manner by warm shower, reading and meditation. Turn off all "screens" at least an hour before bedtime and ensure the bedroom is a cool, relaxing sanctuary for a good night's rest.

"There's a great saying, make time for wellness, or you will be forced to make time for illness," said Burch. "Sleep is a critical component of our wellness. Often individuals try to manage with reduced sleep; however it comes at the detriment of your physical and cognitive performance."

The Performance Triad Website, https://p3.amedd.army.mil, has great resources for individuals, said Burch. He also encourages any Soldier, Soldier for Life or family member to contact their local Army Wellness Center, which has excellent personnel and resources for sleep, stress management, nutrition and physical conditioning to help everyone perform their best and reduce risk for musculoskeletal injuries.

For AWC tips and strategies go to: https://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/healthyliving/al/Pages/ArmyWellnessCenters.aspx.

The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through studies, surveys and technical consultation

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