Whether you’re an aspiring marathoner, a kickboxing junkie, or the reigning golf champion at your country club, you’re an athlete – through and through. Sport is a big part of your life, and you strive for your best performance.
Ask any athlete, in any sport, what it takes to excel, and you’ll likely hear weightlifting, conditioning and practice. Some may say instruction, nutrition or even persistence. There probably won’t be as many who mention sleep.
While sleep is essential for everyone, athletes absolutely must have quality sleep to meet the physical and mental demands of their sport. From the recreational level all the way to the big leagues, anyone looking to score big and perform at the top of their game needs to make sleep a part of their regimen. So, let’s dive a little deeper into the relationship between sleep and athletes.
Sleep and Athletic Performance
Now that we’ve warmed up, we’re ready to tackle some interesting research studies. As clinical researchers continue to study sleep and athletic performance, there are a growing number of findings that directly correlate sleep with athletic performance. Consider these research findings published in Sports Medicine journal:
- When the normal sleep-wake cycle was disturbed, the fine motor skills of tennis players and handball goalkeepers diminished.
- Footballers and judo athletes who experienced four fewer hours of sleep showed decreases in power during anaerobic cycling tests.
- Weightlifters exhibited worse athletic performance after a second night of restricted sleep than just one night, which suggests a cumulative fatigue effect.
- In contrast, sprint times were clocked 5% faster and shooting accuracy improved by 9% for Stanford University men’s basketball players who extended sleep time to at least 10 hours a night over seven weeks.
Sleep and Athletic Recovery
Off the court and away from the gym, sleep also plays a critical role in helping athletes build mental strength and physically recover from training and competitive events.
According to the London Sports Institute, hormones secreted during sleep help physiologically restore an athlete’s body. Melatonin activates other enzymes that help to reduce inflammation, while other hormones released during deep sleep work to repair muscle, build bone and oxidize fats.
Furthermore, the United States Olympic Committee published a 2016 article that mentions how our brains use sleep to download information to our memory centers and permanently forge new connections between neurons. Sleep works to cement things like proper technique, complex team plays and competitive strategies learned during prior training sessions. In other words, your brain is still in the game even when you’re asleep.
Sleep and Injury
While intense training is most often the catalyst for sports-related injuries, lack of sleep appears to be a factor as well.
In a 2014 study appearing in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, one predictor of injury was hours of sleep per night. Adolescent athletes who slept less than eight hours a night on average were 1.7 times more likely to have had an injury compared with those sleeping more.
So, sleep may help athletes avoid the physical hiccups that can derail a training regimen or keep them out of competition.
Common Sleep Problems for Athletes
It’s clear that a good night’s rest can give athletes a physical and psychological advantage. But they can suffer from the same sleep disorders as everyone else. Beyond the typical snoring and insomnia, athletes also must overcome additional factors that complicate sleep, including training schedules, rigorous competitions and travel.
As an example, a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that 62% of German athletes had problems sleeping the night prior to a competition. Self-reported reasons for the restlessness included thinking about the event, nervousness and unfamiliarity with their sleep surroundings due to travel.
And it’s not just needing to schedule enough time for sleep; it’s about finding a way to get more restorative sleep too.
In 2012, Olympic athletes from Great Britain wore sleep watches to measure the amount and quality of sleep. Results showed athletes spent an average of 8.5 hours in bed and slept seven hours for an 81% sleep efficiency rating. Nonathlete peers spent 30 fewer minutes in bed, but got 15 more minutes of sleep for an 89% sleep efficiency rating.
Making Sleep a Priority
Just as you train to get better at your sport, you can train to improve your sleep. The Better Sleep Council has great information and resources to get you started.
Establishing regular routines, practicing good sleep hygiene and optimizing your sleep environment will go a long way to helping you stay strong and healthy so you can excel at your favorite physical activities.
Some tips of particular interest to athletes include:
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Alcohol can suppress breathing and intensify sleep apnea, while the stimulating effect of caffeine can trigger insomnia.
- Limit the late-night lifting. Vigorous workouts can raise levels of cortisol (the human stress hormone), which impairs sleep. So scheduling an intense session right before bed may increase your sleep latency – the time it takes to fall asleep.
- Drink only enough fluids to maintain proper hydration. You don’t want a full bladder to wake you during the night!
- Turn off the screens. TVs and smartphones emit blue light, which suppresses the melatonin levels that make us sleepy. Put down the game film, consider staying off social media, and keep your bedroom dark and quiet.
- Take a nap. Sleep benefits are cumulative, so naps can help you recover from a previous night of poor sleep or waking up early for a training session. But try to avoid late-afternoon or evening siestas so you don’t impact your nighttime sleep routine.
Finally, buying a new mattress to match your sleep preferences can go a long way to improving your sleep. Take our Better Bed Quizzz so you can shop for one with confidence.
- United States Olympic Committee. Olympic Coach, Winter 2016.
- United States Olympic Committee. Olympic Coach, Fall 2013.
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