Last week I touched one the importance of “picking the lowest lying fruit first,” if you want to rapidly improve your performance on the field of play and in the game of life. In my experience nutrition is number one but sleeping is a close second. Why is sleep so vital to athletic development?
Five stages occur during sleep. Light sleep occurs during stages one and two, while stages three and four are deep sleep. It’s in stages three and four that Growth Hormone (GH) secretion occurs. Rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, generally when dreaming occurs, takes place during stage five. A full cycle through these five stages occurs about every 90 minutes. If numerous full cycles of sleep aren’t attained most nights, GH secretion can diminish and influence physical and mental restoration. When someone sleeps less than his or her body needs, not only is GH secretion lowered, but also overall exercise performance can taper off. It may feel as though the exerciser is working very hard when they really aren’t. 
Sleep is associated with the release of hormones such as GH. This may be why sleep helps us repair and recover. Sleep associated GH secretion has also been linked to the nocturnal rise in fatty acid release. As one ages, there is a decrease in sleep duration and GH secretion. Sleep deprivation in young individuals reduces GH secretion and may contribute to premature development of the metabolic syndrome (a combination of medical disorders that, when occurring together, increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes). GH secretion peaks late at night.
Why is growth hormone so important?
GH helps bone, muscle, and other tissues grow.
In the muscle, GH stimulates protein synthesis as well as fat metabolism. GH recruits fatty acids from storage and tells the body to use fatty acids for energy. The effects of GH on fat mobilization can begin at 20 minutes after release and last up to 3 hours.
Interestingly, as GH limits the storage of fats and mobilizes them for energy, blood sugar levels concurrently increase. In this way, GH “spares” carbohydrates from breakdown, and the level of sugar in the blood increases. This is why long-term GH replacement must be carefully monitored and is not something to be taken lightly as it could lead to insulin resistance (type-2 diabetes).
Intense exercise like all out sprinting and heavy weight lifting is also associated with the release of GH.
Increases fat breakdown and utilization
Increases collagen synthesis and cartilage growth
Increases retention of nitrogen, sodium, potassium, and phosphorus
Increases kidney flow and filtration
Enhances immune function 
I think it’s pretty apparent why sleep is so important to athletic development and specifically it’s contribution to body composition and tissue repair. If you constantly beat your body up in sport and training and don’t allow the rest time for your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to recover you are setting yourself up for poor performance and eventually nagging injuries that can lead to more severe injuries down the road.
That said, working out in the morning is essential for many adults and some schools are holding before school practices and workout sessions. If morning workouts are your best option or even a requirement there are a few things you should consider:
We are creatures of habit – not only psychologically and socially, but physiologically as well. If you need proof, all you have to do is read up on shift work disorder, which shows that simply changing one’s sleep and work schedule can have some profound consequences for our health. 
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that changing the time of day when one’s workout routine takes place is a huge deal for everything from mood to performance. Perhaps the most common adjustment that takes place is when someone decides to exercise in the morning. It may be because a long day at work or class is too exhausting to be 100% when you hit the gym after it’s over, or you may just not want to wait for equipment access in a crowded gym at 6PM. Or, it could be because a parent is super busy with kids’ after-school activities, so first thing in the morning before they wake up is the best bet for getting in a strength and conditioning program.
Whatever the reason, the adjustment to exercise in the morning is without a doubt the toughest “time change” one could make. With that in mind, here are five keys to making it a smooth transition:
1. Get to bed earlier.
If you’re someone who is accustomed to sleeping 12AM-8AM, then racing to be to work at 9AM, it’s going to be an adjustment if you want to start training at 6AM before you head to work. You’re only making it tougher if you decide that you’re simply going to sleep 12AM-5AM. It’s also going to crush your productivity for the rest of the day, as you’ll be sleepwalking rather than enjoying the post-exercise energy boost most people experience. If you want to be up at 5AM or 6AM to train, you’ve got to be in bed by 10PM. In fact, I always advise my clients that an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight.
2. Stand up for a bit.
First thing in the morning most of us likely feel a little stiff and slow. Move around the house and maybe if take a quick one-minute warm shower to “lube” your body up before you hit the gym or track.
3. Extend the warm-up.
It’s a good idea to add a few more dynamic warm-up drills like jumping rope or walking lunges to your pre-exercise routine. Typically, I have kids do between eight and ten drills (adults 5-6), but those who exercise in the morning are better off with as many as 15. It might add five minutes to your dynamic warm-up, but that’s far better than spending far more than five minutes in physical therapy for an injury you got from insufficiently warming up!
4. Tinker with various nutrition approaches.
To eat or not to eat that is the question? And the answer as it usually is in these matters is it depends on the person and their goals. There is strong scientific support for the notion of exercising first thing in the morning ion an empty stomach to more efficiently burn body fat. But for every 10 people that can exercise well while fasted there are 4 people that will become dizzy and nearly faint if their tank is on empty.
Generally if these exercise session is going to be intense like a sport practice/competition or heavy/explosive resistance training it’s a good idea to consume something about an hour before the workout. If the session is more moderate like jogging or yoga there won’t be as great a requirement for fueling up prior to working out. It’s best to stick with foods that settle well with you and are easy to digest if you do choose to eat before training. Fruit with yogurt and/or kefir are but a few foods that are usually good options before training.
If you cannot exercise in a fasted state due to fatigue, or simply opt not to for some other reason, you can also consume whey protein before exercise. It's an excellent breakfast choice. A 2010 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise demonstrated that consuming whey protein (20g protein / serving) 30 minutes before resistance training can boost your body's metabolism for as much as 24 hours after your workout. 
Whether you choose to exercise on an empty stomach or not, your post exercise meal is crucial to stop the breakdown of muscle and shift the process toward repair and growth.
If you fail to feed your muscle at the right time after exercise, the breakdown process will go too far and can potentially damage your muscle. The correct time to eat is within 30 minutes after your workout. Your meal should include fast-assimilating proteins, such as high-quality whey protein with no sugar added and for kids grass-fed milk even chocolate is a good post-workout refueling option.
5. Recruit a training partner.
A training partner is almost always a good idea, but this is especially true when you’re up at the crack of dawn and not necessarily in the mindset to really push yourself. Plus, when you’re awake for exercise before the sun rises, you’re far more likely to hit the snooze button if someone isn’t waiting for you at the gym.
While training first thing in the morning isn’t exactly ideal, it may be your only option for staying consistent with your workout routine – and consistency is the name of the game. Implement these strategies to get the most out of your early morning training sessions.
While I am on the topic of sleep I thought I would also address a related symptom when you don’t get enough. A recent study revealed how detrimental fatigue can be on sport performance.
It is one of many studies that show that muscular fatigue impairs coordination.
I suppose it is not surprising that fatigue impairs coordination, but I can see at least three practical implications from this study that are often ignored.
1. To optimize motor learning, minimize fatigue
Movement skills are best learned and refined in a context that is free from stress, pain and fatigue. For example, at a recent speed and agility camp a few brave campers asked if we were going to run “gassers?” For the uninitiated this is where the coach has kids run back and forth and repetitively touch lines on the field or court to “improve’ their speed/endurance. All I observe are a bunch of kids who look liked wounded animals as they drag themselves to the finish line. I respond as I always do in these occasions; “No gassers! My goal isn’t to make you tired it’s to make you better.”
So next time you are doing yoga, Olympic lifts, sprinting technique, or any other movement with the primary intention of improving your coordination and skill, realize that performing the movements without adequate rest might work counter to your goals. If young athletes want to maximize their skill they must practice with speed and intensity; two qualities that are greatly diminished when they are to tired to stand up straight.
2. Skill under fatigue may be a skill in itself
What a second… Doesn’t this idea contradict concept #1? Almost all sports require that you show your skill while tired. This would imply that, for example, basketball players should practice free throws after running some sprints. This all comes down to timing. With younger athletes (6-14 years of age) skill acquisition and refinement are of primary importance under the scope of long-term development. In the high school years (15-18) practicing skills while fatigued is an essential progression for the maturing athlete. For the younger kids its counter productive their bodies are not mature enough to handle the competing demands.
3. To avoid skill deterioration from fatigue, work on your fitness
I have frequently experienced the pain of watching my skills and the skills of others completely deteriorate after getting gassed from too much running. It’s not just a matter of being too tired to execute the moves, it’s more like the feeling after you just wake up– you feel unbalanced, unfocussed, and just sloppy in your movement. I am not certain if anyone watches boxing anymore but in the later rounds the fighters are holding on to each other and can hardly move let alone execute any effective skill.
Sometimes after a poor performance you will pick apart your game and wonder what happened, why your skill didn’t hold up? Don’t overlook the obvious prescription – you may need to do more sprints and conditioning to get fit. This is a high payoff way to get better for mature athletes, not just because it gives you more energy to chase opponents, hit balls or stop pucks, but also because it prevents the deterioration of your skill that occurs with fatigue. On the field of play and in the game of life, fitness and skill can be hard to separate. Just remember timing is everything!