I recently asked the following question to some athletes: “What do you think is the number one, most important thing you can do to improve your health and fitness?”

Some of the responses included, cardio, mental focus, being driven, nutrition, consistency, and balance.

All of these do play a role in our health and fitness, but there is a very important one that almost all of us over look. It affects everything we do, and directly impacts our training, attitude, and, most importantly, our health. The number thing we can do for our health and fitness is SLEEP!

We all know we need to sleep. We hear about getting eight hours of sleep each night all the time. But we really don’t need that do we? Yes! We do! Did you know that sleep deprivation causes slower reaction time than drinking? Think about that. That means the guy driving next to you who had less than eight hours sleep is a bigger threat to you than if he had a night on the town with friends.

Lack of sleep is serious, and does not get the attention it deserves in our sport and our everyday lives.

Lack of sleep has been linked to diabetes, lower metabolism, heart disease, poor immune system functions, and little if no recovery from training. Over training is due to the lack of rest, and sleep! Our bodies recover, deal with stress, and rebuild while at rest. Cutting this short, will ultimately lead to injury, sickness, weight gain, and more.

The lack of seven to nine hours of sleep each night has also been directly linked to lower levels hormones, and issues with blood sugar. With the lack of sleep directly linked to the body’s ability to process glucose, you can see were this will impact your nutrition. Ever notice when you are up late and tired, you crave sweets, chips, and everything you should not eat? Lack of sleep triggers the body to respond as if you are in crises, it immediately wants to conserve and store energy. Hormones trigger your appetite to increase and your inability to feel full, which causes over eating.

With all your hard work you can really do a number on yourself if you don’t get enough sleep. Think about all the hours training down the drain due to injury, poor mental focus, poor reaction time, or getting sick, all due to not sleeping. Guess when this is going to happen–just as you are trying to peak in your training.

Sleep is over looked in our sport and in our society as a whole. We triathletes like to consider ourselves health and fitness nuts. So, the most important question for your training and long term health isn’t, “how long did you train,” but rather, How much did you sleep?”

Now turn off your computer and go to bed.