Getting quality sleep is crucial to staying in tip-top physical shape—and that’s especially true if you’re a triathlete.
According to research published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, athletes should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, with elite athletes striving for closer to nine hours. Sleeping for the recommended amount of time will help improve your athletic skills, including accuracy, reaction time, and speed.
The importance of sleep for triathletes
Because triathletes compete in multisport endurance races that consist of running, cycling, and swimming—and they train intensely for weeks or months leading up to a big race—deep sleep, where muscle recovery happens, is especially important.
When you don’t get enough sleep—particularly deep sleep—your body may be fatigued, inflamed, stressed, and in extreme cases, in chronic pain.
For a triathlete whose body is already undergoing stress during extensive training and competing, lack of restful sleep only worsens these effects, heightening the chances of succumbing to long-term health problems, injuries, or both.
What can you do to improve your sleep so your body is powered up to cross that finish line? Below, we’ve rounded up expert-approved sleep advice for triathletes.
7 best sleep tips for triathletes
Whether you’ve been competing as a triathlete for years or you’re just getting into it, the following sleep tips can help you maximize your performance during a high-endurance race.
1. Eat more magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium helps maintain healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes better sleep and reduces anxiety. High levels of magnesium reduce lactic acid build-up in muscles, which prevents tightness, cramps, and post-workout pain. This makes it the perfect nutrient for triathletes.
You can find magnesium in a variety of common foods, including pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, black beans, soy milk, and dark chocolate.
2. Avoid caffeine after lunchtime
Richter recommends skipping the post-lunch latte so you can fall asleep easier at night.
That’s because caffeine has a long half-life of six to eight hours. If you drink a large cup of coffee at 4 p.m., that means you’ll still have half of the amount of caffeine in your system at 10 p.m.
It’s best to stop caffeine consumption at 2 p.m. If you’re an afternoon-coffee drinker, switch to decaf coffee or tea after 2 p.m.
3. Ditch the electronics before bed
Jonathan Cane, head coach at City Coach, an online training and personal coaching service, says when it comes to active evenings before bed, he struggles to immediately fall asleep—unlike his partner Nicole Sin Quee, triathlete and fitness model.
“It’s funny—my wife Nicole can get off the bike trainer at 11 p.m., hop in the shower, and be fast asleep by 11:15 p.m.,” says Cane. “Me? I need time to wind down. I’m not much of an herbal tea and yoga guy, but a little hot cocoa and shutting down my electronics helps me.”
The blue light from digital screens can alter your body’s internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep. So powering down electronics one to two hours before bed is an excellent idea for any triathlete.
If you find yourself tossing and turning in bed, opt for putting away your phone and turning off your TV so your body knows it’s time for some shuteye. We’ve put together this list of relaxing nighttime activities you can do instead of staring at your screens.
4. Build a sleep routine—and stick to it
Emily Hoskins, executive producer at Saatva who competes in triathlons, says giving sleep the same attention as training and other daily responsibilities helps her be a more resilient athlete.
She follows a consistent nightly routine to prime her for a good night’s sleep.
“Besides not looking at my phone or having caffeine before bed, having a calm space to read or meditate that is not your bed makes the wind-down ritual something to look forward to,” says Hoskins. “You wouldn’t sit at a dinner table waiting to get hungry, so lying in bed waiting to get tired does not seem helpful.”
Hoskins emphasizes that sticking to her regular routine, especially leading up to the big race, helps calm her nerves.
“The anticipation of race day is equally exciting as it is anxiety-inducing,” she says. “When I started racing 10 years ago, I would have restless nights as a result of overthinking the fact that I need to get some rest. I stopped overthinking and prepared for bed like it was just another training day.”
5. Steer clear of late-night exercising
Some triathletes, like Sin Quee, can fall asleep easily after a hardcore late-night workout. Others, like Hoskins, find it difficult to doze off when they work out in the evenings since intense exercise elevates body temperature and heart rate.
If you find yourself wide awake after a nighttime workout, then it might be time to rethink your exercise schedule.
“I check off my hardest workout before breakfast,” says Hoskins. At night, she chooses an evening walk as her favorite way to wind down, regardless of whether or not she has a race coming up.
6. Try melatonin
Sin Quee says one of her recent go-to sleep aids is melatonin. She takes it two nights before a race to make sure she gets quality sleep leading up to the big day. This prevents built-up exhaustion and ensures her body is relaxed, prepped, and ready to go.
She refrains from taking melatonin the night before a race, though, as she doesn’t expect to sleep well because of nerves, an early wake-up, and the fact that she usually isn’t in her own bed.
Melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone, is produced by the brain’s pineal gland. It plays a crucial role in helping your body maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.
Available as an over-the-counter supplement, melatonin may help ease symptoms of insomnia or jet lag, according to research. Always consult your doctor before adding any new supplement to your routine.
7. Get some morning sunshine
Of course, all triathletes training for an upcoming race will feel the sun at some point in the day—but morning sunshine is crucial for keeping your body clock in order.
“I’ve never been a morning person, but I’ve found that waking up with natural light exposure kickstarts my natural circadian rhythm,” says Hoskins. “Sheer curtains keep the room dark enough at night and let that pretty soft sunlight wake you up like sleeping beauty.”
How to rest after a race
If you’re wondering what it takes to get some good rest after a race, you’d be surprised to learn those next steps are all up to you!
Every triathlete has their own way of winding down. For some, it’s going home and sleeping in the next day or two. For others, it’s celebrating that makes them feel good about their big accomplishment.
“As a coach, I should probably emphasize the value of post-race nutrition for recovery, but to me, no race is really complete unless there’s a visit to IHOP after,” says Cane. “In all seriousness though, solid nutrition—in addition to the IHOP breakfast— and some quality rest are important. An easy swim the next day can help promote recovery, and a therapeutic massage is a nice luxury.”
For more sleep advice for athletes, check out our guide to sleep tips for runners.