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Humans Don’t Hibernate – Training in Winter (Sleep and Sunlight)

Personal Training

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The changes of seasons towards winter brings about some of the most challenging deterrents to positive health and fitness choices.

Whether it be the decreasing lack of daily sunlight, the bitter temperatures making the prospect of outdoor training a dreaded option, or the socialised acceptance of seasonal excess, the festive season can play havoc with even the best laid fitness plans.

Yet this doesn’t have to be the recognised norm for all of us. The habits and rituals we build through the challenging winter months when the environment around us screams out for a hibernating mentality, can reap dividends when the summer months roll back round.

Over the next three insights, we will outline how we can maximise our health and fitness during the winter months through small adaptations to sleep, training and nutrition.

However a consideration to begin, one of the underlying principles that separates IFT from a typical training approach is the belief that we are each a unique system of systems… What do we mean by this?

Think back to your introduction to the science of the human body in junior and secondary school.

Hopefully you’ll remember terms for the sub-systems of the body, like the cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal systems for example. You would have learned these systems in isolation, the structure and function of each. Yet whilst from a learning perspective this reductionist approach works incredibly well, this unfortunately is not how complex systems such as humans work.

Whilst a computer may be a complicated system with many parts, the internal system lacks complexity. If I input “A”, I can predict fully that the outcome will be “B”. It’s simple linear processing.

Yet in the case of complex systems such as humans, inputting “A” doesn’t dictate the outcome will always in this case be “B”. There are a raft of underlying interactions and complexities between our internal and external environment that make us who we are.

Why does this matter?

Because winter training represents a huge challenge in terms of change to ALL our normal daily routines as human beings. As we now know, changes in one system can have negative consequences across the board in terms of our health and fitness.

Sleep and Sunlight Exposure

Unlike other animals, humans don’t require the need to hibernate during the winter months.

In spite of the feeling that our sleep needs increase during the winter, and shortens during the summer, the number of hours we actually sleep changes very little across the seasons. What does change dramatically during this period is often the quality of our sleep.

As humans we intrinsically require sunlight exposure to maintain our natural circadian rhythms. It is our circadian rhythm, our internal body-clock, that enables the body to naturally waken with the sunrise and rest with the sunset.

Our 21st century living however dictates that we awake often to an alarm clock regardless of the influence of the changing seasons. As a result, we will have all noticed in the summer months how much easier it becomes to rise when its light in the early morning, as opposed to the depths of darkness during the winter.

Our exposure to sunlight is a massive player in terms of our physical and mental health with regards to the maintenance of circadian rhythms. Abnormal rhythms have been attributed to clinical health issues such as depression, bi-polar and the all to familiar seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This brings about the first two recommendations for effective sleep management during winter training…

  • Don’t ignore the natural rhythms of the human body

Whilst it may be tempting to stay in bed on weekends till the sunrises, this only aids in throwing the internal system further out of sync. Aim to maintain a wake-sleep ritual that shifts no more than 1-2hrs across a week. So if you wake at 5am on a weekday, aim to wake no later than 7am on a weekend.

  • Maximise any available sunlight exposure during the day

This recommendation comes two-fold. The first, is naturally to increase the amount of time you can realistically spend outdoors during daylight hours. For many of us that are office bound this represents a genuine challenge, we may not experience true sunlight exposure at all during a 24hr day. This may therefore mean braving the cold for a 10-15min walk during a lunch break or taking the time at weekends to maximise our time in the available sunlight. Remember, direct sunlight is up to 10x more powerful when outdoors as opposed to indoors…

The second recommendation is the investment in a natural sunrise alarm clock. Whilst this may seem like a flippant purchase to many, we cannot overemphasise the difference in sleep quality when waking to a gradual light source as opposed to an alarm in what appears to be the dead of night. It’s a genuine game-changer.

The sun may be gone, but the use of light to reset the circadian cycle is still an easy and approachable solution.

  • Make the first and last hour of the day ritualised

By establishing a pattern of behaviour in the first hour and last of hour of the day, we take away the decision making process from periods in which we lack the mental focus and deciphering skills for positive health decisions. Setting a regular sleep-wake time enables the body to maintain its natural rhythms.

For a more in-depth look at maximising sleep for health and performance take a read of the following insight.

A ritualised routine for a 7-8hr sleep target may look something like below

Waking at 5am…

  • 9:00pm: TV’s are turned off completely, screens are set to “Nightshift” mode (Apple) to reduce blue-light exposure (has a stimulatory effect on the body…), notifications are turned off from devices, all at least 60mins before bedtime.
  • 9:15pm: Light reading or catch up with partner (try to avoid emotive topics that influence mood negatively)
  • 9:45pm: Go to bedroom. Sunlight exposure clock begins gradual light decrease to darkness.
  • 10:00pm: Sleep…
  • 4:30am: Sunlight exposure clock begins gradual light increase (body begins to shift to “wake mode”)
  • 5:00am: Awake naturally via light exposure
  • 5:05am: Shower, eat, dress etc….

Whilst the timing of this approach may seem regimented and will naturally be subject to change for the individual, the content involved consists of what the vast majority of us do in the evening already. The adaptation comes from the synthetic introduction of sleep aids that normally are available to us during the summer months and the organisation of of light exposure and behaviour patterns to enable positive change.

By simply ritualising to the point that it no longer requires conscious decision making, it’s now an ingrained habit that not only support health through sleep quantity, but also quality.

Take the time to have a look at your daily schedule, establish how many hours of sleep you require (preferably 7-8…) and what this means for your wake-sleep cycle, now work backwards through your day to establish how you can maximise sunlight, ritualise the first and last hour of your day and maintain the natural rhythms that keep us in check.

In our next insight, we’ll look at how we can maximise training during the winter months to support our health and fitness in light of what we now know about sleep, sunlight exposures and the other physical and psychological challenges that winter brings…

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