Effective Sleep for Adventure Racing
By Steve Isaac (aka Chief)
If only we didn't need to sleep. Imagine the distance we
could cover if we could paddle 4 knots, 24 hours a day, day after day.
But don't try it! It could be the last days of your life.
The best study on sleep deprivation as it relates to combat has
been conducted by the Army using rangers, snipers, and artillery battalions as
subjects. Clinical and field tests were performed along with after action
reports in real operations such as Desert Storm. Here are some salient
points that have been learned from those studies:
Your ability to function and make decisions is reduced 25% for each
24 hour period that you go without sleep.
If you go without sleep for about 8 days you will die.
A sleep deprived sniper can still hit a fixed target, but he cannot
make appropriate target decision. That means he can't pick out the bad
guys from the good guys. The implication is that you can keep
functioning, but you can't make decisions.
Sleeping in a noisy or very active environment does not provide the
same rest and recovery as sleep in a quiet environment. Commanders who
slept in a noisy command post made similar mistakes as those who got no sleep.
Your body rhythms naturally want you to sleep during the night and
be awake during the day.
Between 2 AM and 5 AM the body's natural hormones almost force the
body to sleep.
A complete REM cycle is necessary for recovery.
A REM cycle takes about 90 minutes for most people.
A minimum of four REM cycles are needed each night to maintain
combat efficiency for long periods.
|During the first WaterTribe Challenge I began to have very
pleasant hallucinations. Every few minutes a mermaid or porpoise would
surface right next to the boat. As the hours went by my hallucinations
became more sinister. Sharks and sea monsters would appear. But the
worst where brick walls that would appear right in front of my face. I'd
shake my head to make it disappear. Also, I would hear voices, "Steve,
what are you doing -- WHAT ARE YOU DOING!"
I was terrified that I would drop my paddle. Many times I nodded off and
continued to paddle while sleeping. I would wake up in mid stroke
paddling on the wrong course.
Even more terrifying was the realization that I could easily fall out of the
kayak. Alone and miles from shore I could easily drown if I hit the water
I paddled to a beach and slept for about 2 hours -- 1 REM cycle.
Between 24 hours and 48 hours without sleep you will start to
experience the first signs of sleep deprivation. You will begin to
hallucinate. You can continue to perform physical tasks at decreasing
levels of efficiency but your mental capacity will diminish at an increasing
Eventually you will not be able to prevent yourself from dozing
off. Although physical activity helps you stay awake, it is no
guarantee. It is possible to run, walk or paddle in a zombie like
state. It is common to see adventure racers zoned out.
If you continue without REM sleep for 60 hours or more, you may
start to exhibit psychotic episodes: delirium, paranoia, screaming, crying,
rage. Obviously, your decision making capacity is all but gone.
This is an extremely dangerous time especially if you are paddling a kayak
If you don't die due to an accident, after about 8 days with no
sleep you will probably die when your brain and body shut down.
So what is the minimum amount of sleep we need to function at an
acceptable level of risk?
The Cat Nap Myth and
Some Smart Rules
There is a strong myth that taking cat naps is the solution to
sleep deprivation. Make no mistake, a 10 minute snooze is just nodding
off. It does almost no good at all for your body. You need REM
sleep in order to recover brain function and rebuild tissues that have been
destroyed in the previous hours of hard effort.
Although a 10 minute nap is tempting, does it really make any
sense? Instead of nodding off every hour or two and getting no benefit,
you could easily stop for 90 minutes and get real rest and recovery? Teams
that "cat nap" during long adventure races are usually passed by teams that get
more effective sleep. The cat napping teams are ahead for the first few
days, but soon mistakes and fatigue slow them down. The more
effective "sleepers" pass them up for the victory.
Rules for Effective Sleep
Rule 1: Always sleep in multiples of 90 minutes.
Rule 2: Always eat and hydrate before you go to
sleep. This is your best opportunity to eat real food and have the blood
supply available to digest it properly. Take the time to prepare a warm
meal. Drink plenty of plain water with your meal. Take a good
vitamin and mineral supplement. Your body needs a nutrient rich supply of
food to make the necessary repairs to your tissues.
Rule 3: Find a quiet and comfortable place to
sleep. Unless the checkpoint provides significant comfort factors
(example - heat, shelter, food, water during the Iditarod), move out of
the checkpoint to avoid activity and noise while you are trying to sleep.
Rule 4: No matter how many REM cycles you have
planned, start your sleep period so it ends roughly at day break.
Rule 5: If you are nodding off uncontrollably, forget
rules 3 and 4 and just get some REM sleep using rules 1 and 2.
Long races are won by the teams that don't make mistakes. You
can win races by sleeping smart.
A 1 Day Race
|These racing times are the number of days that you plan for
the race. You might be in a race with an 8 day time limit, but you have
the ability to do the race in four days. For you it's a four day race so
plan your sleep accordingly.
If you sleep during a race that lasts up to 24 hours, you
lose! If you can't keep going without sleep for one day, you should not
be in an adventure race. Your decision making ability will be reduced by
about 25% at the end of the race, but that is acceptable. Usually a race
of this type has well marked courses so it is just a matter of moving
forward. But always remember Rule 5.
Needless to say -- sleep before you drive home.
2 Day Races
If the race lasts 2 days or less, it is possible to go without
sleep for the entire race, but your decision making ability will be down to 50%
which is a very dangerous level. A longer race presents more opportunity
for unforeseen circumstances and your ability to adapt is compromised.
Recommendation: Sleep at least 1 REM cycle the first
night. Push through the second day without sleep. Remember Rules 1,
2, and 5.
4 Day Races
A four day race can easily kill you if you don't manage your sleep
properly. The temptation is to go out strong the first two days without
sleep. It's like a marathon racer getting caught up in the excitement and
going out too fast and then bonking half way to the finish. Instead, race
smart. Plan your sleep just like you plan every other aspect of the race.
Recommendation: Sleep at least two REM cycles the first three
nights of the race. Go ahead and push through the last night but don't
forget Rule 5. Always remember Rule 2 about eating and drinking. It
is more important to follow rules 3 and 4 so your sleep is most
efficient. Never forget Rule 5.
If you get four REM cycles of sleep each night, you can go on for
several days and maintain almost normal decision making ability. For most
racers, that is too much time not moving forward. Instead, you have to be
a bit crafty and use the race to get the maximum sleep at critical times.
Recommendation: Divide the race into four day sections.
Run each four day section as recommended above for a four day race. But
on the fourth night plan on getting 4 REM cycles instead of only 2.
Choose your time and place according to rules 3 and 4. Also, choose your
time and place according to the race. Perhaps it is important to get more
rest before or after and critical section or cut off time. Think
strategically and get longer rest periods when possible. If you get
stopped by a dark zone, take advantage of it. Get maximum sleep rather
than worry about being stopped.
During an expedition you should always try to get four REM cycles
or more each night. If you need to push it, go longer into the night and
then stop so that you get up with the sun. Sleep during the 2 AM to 5 AM
time period is especially important.
During many expeditions there may come a time when you simply must
make a push. Maybe you need to meet a plane for extraction or maybe you
are just running low on food. Handle that situation similar to the
recommendations for racing given above. However, it would be highly
unusual to be in a situation where you can't get at least two REM cycles each
A WaterTribe Challenge
Most WaterTribe Challenges have a time limit of 8 days. The
distance and difficulty are such that the course can be completed in 6 or 7
days if you paddle 10 to 16 hours per day. This leaves plenty of time to
get 4 or 5 REM cycles of sleep each night.
If you are going for a win, you will be trying to finish in four
days or less. Unless you are superman AND you get perfect weather, you
will not be able to complete the race in 2 days. This means that racers
going for the win should follow either the four day race plan or the long race
plan. Be on guard for signs of sleep deprivation and get a few extra REM
cycles if needed. Winning a race isn't worth dying.
Now go get some zzzzzzzzs
© 2001 Steve Isaac