[CQ-Contest] Drugs, Sleep and Contesting

Dick Green WC1M wc1m73 at gmail.com
Fri May 22 11:16:58 PDT 2009

Personally, I'm not interested in using any artificial chemical means of
staying awake. The stress of staying up for 40+ hours pounds my aging body
enough without adding drugs with potentially dangerous side effects. I think
there are better ways: fitness, eating right, minimizing stress and getting
enough sleep.


K5ZD refers to this in his NCJ article, and I can attest from personal
experience that being fit is the best way to cope with the debilitating
effects of sleep deprivation. Five years ago, I lost about 50 lbs by
controlling my caloric intake and exercising more (generally in that order
-- one life-style change at a time.) This made a world of difference to my
ability to endure putting in a full effort in a 48-hour contest. I won't say
it made me feel terrific when I hadn't had any sleep for 36 hours, but it
was a heck of a lot better than when I was out of shape. Since then, my
weight has fluctuated a bit and there's pretty-much 100% correlation between
how I feel during contests how fit I am.

Eating Right 

Back around 2001, I read an article about an Air Force study on techniques
used by long-haul pilots for coping with sleep deprivation. It contained a
list of foods that are good for staying alert and foods that make you
sleepy. Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the article anywhere, but the
recommendations were pretty intuitive. Caffeine and sugar don't work over
long periods because you get the peak-and-valley effect with progressively
deeper valleys. Carbs (especially processed carbs) make you sleepy. It's
generally best to eat lean proteins, though I've read that if you go into
ketosis you can have other problems like muscle cramps. Among the good foods
I can remember off the top of my head are chicken, avocados, yogurt, aged
cheeses. I've found that eating less is almost always best for my particular
metabolism (YMMV.) Eating small amounts more frequently is usually better
for me than eating a smaller number of large meals, provided I'm not
constantly snacking. I try to eat just enough to keep hunger from
distracting me, but not so much that I feel full.

My contest menu goes something like this:

Breakfast - one or two hard-boiled eggs and a fruit yogurt
Lunch - small bowl of tuna mixed with cottage cheese, grape tomatoes, a few
olives and seasoned salt
Dinner - small bowl of homemade roast chicken, leek and bean soup prepped
before the contest and microwaved
Snacks - apples (anytime), 1-ounce portions of almonds and peanuts about
once per day

Again, less is more, especially the breakfast meal which I eat just before
20m opens in the morning. You don't want to be bloated for that. I sometimes
drink decaf tea in the evenings or when I'm feeling the exhaustion, but try
to minimize that. I usually drink one cup of caffeinated tea before the
morning runs, especially on the second day. I'm still experimenting with
that -- not so sure it's a good idea, even though the caffeine level is
relatively low.

Needless to say, food and drink should be quickly and easily accessible, and
prep time should rangel from little to none. I used to burn up a lot of time
in CQ WW dealing with food. Now I want to measure that lost time in seconds
as opposed to minutes.

I'm often surprised by the food served or made available to contesters at
multis. I like the social aspect of the team sitting down together for a
nice meal before the contest starts, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to
eat a big plate of pasta and a high-calorie desert at 2300z. The ubiquitous
presence of high-carb/fat/salt snacks and soft drinks laden with caffeine
and sugar isn't a great idea, either. It's generally not a problem if there
are plenty of ops to keep the shifts short, but for thinly-manned operations
it's not good. Of course, I can imagine the reaction to a tray of high-fiber
crackers with aged cheese, nuts and cups of yogurt! 

Minimizing Stress

There's a pretty good correlation between my level of stress in the weeks
leading up to the contest and my performance under the pressure of sleep
deprivation. Less stress, better performance (and I feel better during the
contest, too.) For me, stress is an energy-sapper. I can't count the number
of times some work matter has blown up the week before the contest,
compressing or eliminating the time I have to mentally prepare. I've often
had to do cross-country plane trips in the days leading up to a contest, and
that's a big negative as well (good reason to get to that DXpedition QTH as
far in advance as possible!) Although not strictly a stress-generator, I've
often been rushing to finish a station-construction project in the days
before the contest. This can sap lots energy and, depending on the project,
can create unneeded stress. Finally, stress sometimes interferes with my
ability to sleep before the contest -- the next subject.

Getting Enough Sleep

I guess the experts would say that you can't store sleep, but I've found
that if I get a lot of sleep in the weeks before the contest, and especially
the last few days before the contest, I do much better. Those times when,
for one reason or another, I've been getting along on much less than 7-8
hours per night (sometimes 3-5 hours), I'm generally a wreck by the time the
contest rolls around. Of one thing I'm sure: not getting enough sleep in no
way prepares you for the sleep deprivation of contesting. This is a case
where practice or pre-conditioning are useless. If I can get a good-night's
sleep every night for the two-weeks leading up to the contest, I'll do much
better. Many have extolled the benefits of taking a nap in the hours just
before the contest starts. I've had mixed results with this. For some
contests, I need too much time on the day of the contest to finalize
preparations: get food, prepare it, finish building projects, get the
station ready, etc. Quite often there just isn't any time left to nap. Or,
when there has been enough time, the stress of getting ready along with the
excitement and anticipation of contesting make it hard to fall asleep at
3:00 PM. More and more, I've tried to get as much prep out of the way as
possible the day before the contest. If I have more to do, or have work
obligations, I'll get up fairly early and try to nap for 90 minutes to three
hours in the afternoon. If I have the day off, I'll sleep very late and not
nap at all. 

A Work in Progress

I'm still working on all this. For me, the first day of the contest is by
far the most difficult part. I think this is the opposite of how many others
feel. I believe most contesters are carried by freshness and excitement the
first day but generally get worn out by the second day. For me, the first
night can be very difficult, especially if the rate is low or I've not had a
good start. If the starting hour is bad, I have lots of trouble motivating
myself to get into the flow of the contest. Things will pick up for me
during the first set of morning runs, assuming the rate is good, but I'll
usually sag during the afternoon doldrums. But once I've made it through the
first 24 hours, I'm usually in rhythm and can see the light at the end of
the tunnel. In fact, I'm often very keyed up because I sense that time is
running out! If I had a good first day, the accelerating rate of score
buildup on the second day always keeps me motivated -- there's nothing like
having a strong 7-digit score already in the bag and watching it jump
significantly after every QSO and new mult.

73, Dick WC1M
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Pete Smith [mailto:n4zr at contesting.com]
> Sent: Thursday, May 21, 2009 2:35 PM
> To: cq-contest at contesting.com
> Subject: [CQ-Contest] Drugs, Sleep and Contesting
> I was thinking of writing a little piece on this for the Contest
> Compendium's section on sleep deprivation.  My memory no doubt has
> gaps, but I don't recall any serious discussion of the topic here.  I
> think that a couple of years ago there was a flurry of interest in a
> drug called Provigil that had been developed for use by people
> afflicted with narcolepsy, but that's all I recall.
> Obviously, I'm not suggesting a discussion of illegal drug use (no
> greenies, please) but I wonder what the collective experience has
> been.  Have you tried anything other than the measures suggested in
> the Compendium article on Sleep strategies?  See
> http://wiki.contesting.com/index.php/Table_of_Contents#Contest_Operating
> for that.
> 73, Pete N4ZR
> New Articles Daily - the Contesting Compendium at
> The World Contest Station Database, updated daily at
> The Reverse Beacon Network at http://reversebeacon.net

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