Sleep Essentials for Athletes

Sleep is a critical component of our health and well-being, it impacts on all areas of our life from emotional regulation, physical development, cognitive performance and quality of life.  There is also plenty of evidence that increased sleep time and quality can positively impact athletic performance, making sleep as important part of an athlete’s regime as training and diet.

In this blog we look at the key reasons why sleep is so important for athletes plus some tips to help you enhance the quality of your sleep.

Why Sleep is Important for Athletes

  • Rest and Recovery- when you sleep your body switches to recovery mode which allows your heart to rest and cells and tissues (including muscles) to repair1. This is important to allow your body to recover after physical exertion. Also, as you progress through the stages of sleep, the changes in heart rate and breathing throughout the night promote cardiovascular health.  In a study of male runners and volleyball players, both groups of athletes exhausted faster after sleep deprivation7.
  • Immunity – Sleep plays an important role in preventing illness and helping us to recover from illness. During sleep, our bodies produce cytokines, which are hormones that help the immune system fight off infections.  A good night sleep helps an athlete to recover from illnesses such as the common cold getting them back to training as soon as possible3.  
  • Memory and skill development - Sleep helps everyone to retain and consolidate memories. When athletes practice or learn new skills, sleep helps form memories, and contributes to improved performance. Without sleep, the pathways in the brain that allow humans to learn and make memories can’t be formed or maintained4.  Thus, for sports which require a high level of technique and skill development (eg. golf, tennis, gymnastics) good quality sleep is important in laying down the neural and muscular pathways developed through training.  One study found that after sleep deprivation, male and female tennis players had decreased serve accuracy of up to 53% when compared to performance after normal sleep5.
  • Increased cognitive function - Sleep is also essential for cognitive processing. Loss of sleep is associated with a decline in cognitive function. This is particularly relevant for athletes whose sports require a high level of cognitive function such as reaction time, decision making and adapting to new situations. Male and female swimmers who extended their sleep to 10 hours improved their reaction times off diving blocks, and their turn times were faster6.
  • Increased health and wellbeing – it's not just our physical health which is improved by a good night sleep but also our mental health. Quality sleep is associated with improved mood, a key driver of enhanced performance.  Healthy sleep prevents irritability and decreases the risk of developments such as depression and anxiety.

 Tips to ensure you are getting quality sleep

The quality of our sleep is as important as the quantity.  Here are some top tips for ensuring you give yourself the best chance at a great night sleep:

  • Sleep Environment – create a sleeping environment that is quiet, dark and conducive to sleep (no TVs!)
  • Avoid Caffeine2 – Caffeine interrupts our ability to fall asleep as it competes with adenosine preventing adenosine from binding to its receptor which causes sleepiness. Caffeine has a half life of approximately 5 hours meaning that it takes about 5 hours for the body to remove half of the caffeine initially ingested leading many experts to recommend that caffeine intake after midday should be limited to ensure a good night sleep
  • Avoid Sugar & Alcohol – high sugar intake is associated with lighter, less restorative sleep with more sleep arousals meaning people who consume more sugar spend significantly less time experiencing deep, slow-wave sleep, which is essential for restoration8
  • Electronics – Stay away from TVs, phones, and computers as the blue light that these devices emit can affect your circadian rhythm. They also engage your brain making it harder to wind down and fall asleep
  • Establish a Routine – establish a wind down routine aimed to facilitate you resting and relaxing. Some examples include taking a bath/shower, meditating, stretching or reading a book. Going to sleep at a similar time each night will also help align your circadian rhythms
  • Take 2 – If you don’t fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying, get up and do an activity quietly (no screens!) until you feel sleepy and try again

 

References:

  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2011, January). Your Guide to Healthy Sleep. Retrieved 1 June 2022, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/all-publications-and-resources/your-guide-healthy-sleep
  2. For an interesting overview of the impact of caffeine on sleep, check out Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (available on Audible or in good bookshops).
  3. Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MH, Cohen S. Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep. 2015 Sep 1;38(9):1353-9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26118561/
  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2019, August 13). Brain basics: Understanding sleep. Retrieved 1 June 2022, from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
  5. Reyner LA, Horne JA. Sleep restriction and serving accuracy in performance tennis players, and effects of caffeine. Physiol Behav. 2013 Aug 15;120:93-96. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23916998/
  6. Vitale, K. C., Owens, R., Hopkins, S. R., & Malhotra, A. (2019). Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. International journal of sports medicine, 40(8), 535–543. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-0905-3103
  7. Skein, M., Duffield, R., Edge, J., Short, M., & Mundel, T. (2011). Intermittent-Sprint Performance and Muscle Glycogen after 30 h of Sleep Deprivation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(7), 1301–1311. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e31820abc5a
  8. St-Onge MP, Roberts A, Shechter A, Choudhury AR. Fiber and saturated fat are associated with sleep arousals and slow wave sleep. J Clin Sleep Med 2016;12(1):19–24

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