Experts discuss benefits of sleep banking

Sleep banking is a proven practice that promotes stamina, strength and mental acuity, according to health experts with the Army Office of the Surgeon General.

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Training for a demanding race like the Army 10-miler requires focus, determination and a solid nine-to-10 hours of sleep every night, according to experts at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the Army Office of the Surgeon General.

Sleep is one of the three pillars of the Performance Triad, which also includes nutrition and activity.

“It allows our bodies to focus on recovery and restores the mind and muscles,” said Lt. Col. T Scott Burch, the lead sleep study researcher, Army System for Health Performance Triad, OSTG. “Following a particularly strenuous training day, our body may need more time to recover and there will be signs that we need additional sleep, so plan go to bed a little earlier following high intensity workouts or demanding training activities.”

Sleep is good recovery for the brain, acknowledged Dr. Tom Balkin, a sleep expert and senior scientist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. “Aim for as much sleep as you can possibly squeeze in,” he said. “Seven-to-eight hours of sleep is average, but more is even better.”

Both Balkin and Burch recommend using sleep banking as a strategy to reach peak performance before any strenuous event. Sleeping an extra one-to-two hours leading up to the activity will “bank” extra energy, stamina and focus.

“Consider this to be part of your training,” Balkin suggested. “It’s not something you would do every day in your normal life, but the week before you run a marathon, for example, get all the sleep you can. Think of it like money. The more you get is better, and it doesn't matter when it shows up in your bank account. The next day, the cash is still in your account.”

The goal of the Performance Triad is to inform and encourage leaders to set conditions for Soldiers to optimize their sleep, activity and nutrition to improve the overall readiness of the Army, said Col. Hope Williamson-Younce, director of the Army System for Health and deputy chief of staff for public health, Army Office of the Surgeon General.

Failing to optimize sleep can lead to significant reductions in physical and cognitive performance. 

“The Army has improved significantly in recognizing that sleep is a key component of a healthy lifestyle and culture,” Burch said. “If the extent of your duties precludes you from optimal sleep, talk with your chain of command. Encourage them to consult local subject matter experts at Army Wellness Centers and see how they can not only improve your ability to obtain optimal sleep but also how they improve the physical performance of the entire unit while simultaneously reducing injuries and achieving a higher percentage of Soldiers who are medically ready and prepared for battle."

At Fort Riley, Kans., sleep banking was put into practice by an armored brigade combat unit, said Williamson-Younce. Prior to a weeklong FTX for gunnery tables, Soldiers attended a sleep education session and participated in a “reverse PT schedule,” during which they arrived at 9 a.m. and conducted physical training at 4 p.m. This led to dramatic improvements in their Gunnery Table results. They went from an average score of 756 (qualified) without banking to an average score of 919 (distinguished) with sleep banking.

For people who have difficulty falling asleep, Burch recommends refining basic habits. Have a routine bedtime schedule and wind down the night in a calm manner such as a warm shower, reading and/or meditation. Turn off all “screens” at least an hour before bedtime and ensure the bedroom is a cool, relaxing sanctuary for a good night’s rest.

“There’s a great saying, ‘make time for wellness, or you will be forced to make time for illness,’” Burch said. “Sleep is a critical component of our wellness. Often individuals try to manage with reduced sleep; however it comes at the detriment of your physical and cognitive performance.”

The Performance Triad Website, p3.amedd.army.mil, has great resources for individuals, Burch noted. He encourages every Soldier new and old, and family members, to take advantage of their local Army Wellness Center where there are excellent personnel and resources for sleep, stress management, nutrition and physical conditioning to help everyone perform their best and reduce risk for musculoskeletal injuries.