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Athletes, Sleep and Performance

Better sleep leads to better sports performance

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Updated September 07, 2013

Athletes and sleep

Athletes and sleep

(c) Thinkstock Images / Getty Images

Athletes need quality sleep to perform their best.

Most athletes recognize that rest and recovery is critical for success. Training programs, and schedules will automatically have rest days build into them, and athletes often just know when they need to take a few easy days to recover. However, many of those same athletes, and even their coaches, fail to recognize that quality sleep is just as big a part of the recovery process as taking some easy training days.

In fact, numerous studies have shown that even a small amount of sleep deprivation can dramatically decrease athletic performance. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, however research points to the role of glucose metabolism and cortisol (a stress hormone) production as a major factor.

Results of studies on sleep deprivation found that sleep deprived athletes don't metabolize glucose very efficiently, and have higher levels of cortisol, which has been linked to memory impairment, age-related insulin resistance, and impaired recovery. Another potential problem of poor sleep is lowered levels of the hormone leptin, which play a role in regulating hunger as well as storing body fat.

Make the most of your nightly sleep ritual, by following these tried an true expert recommendations to maximize your sleep quality.

  1. Keep It Dark. Using light-tight blinds, shades and window covering helps set the right environment for sleep. Ambient light can be a distraction, and a glowing or flashing clock, or other light from electronics can also interfere with a solid night's sleep.
  2. Keep It Cool. Lowering the thermostat in your bedroom to 65 to 68 degrees can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. You may have to experiment with the temperature, or amount of covers you use, but keeping it on the cool side is better for sleeping than being too hot.
  3. Keep It Quiet. Nothing can cause more sleep disturbance than noise. If you live in a noisy location--near traffic, airports, or have noisy neighbors--invest in some earplugs to create your own silent night. If you don't like earplugs, a white noise machine, or a fan with a constant hum may do the trick.
  4. Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day is ideal for athletes. A regular schedule makes your training routine more consistent and regular. If you sleep and wake at the same time, your body can adapt to a regular training and nutrition plan as well. Additionally, research shows that a regular sleep habit that includes a 10 p.m. bedtime and 6 a.m. wake up time seems to be the optimal schedule for both physical and psychological recovery, as well as wakefulness during the day.
  5. Limit Caffeine Intake. Cutting down on caffeine can improve not only your quality of sleep, but can help you fall asleep faster. For most people, drinking highly caffeinated drinks in the late afternoon or evening will impair sleep. Caffeine consumption raises the levels of hormones called catecholamines. These hormones act as central nervous system stimulants that increase endurance, heart rate, and blood vessel constriction. This is one reason athletes often consume caffeine prior to competition or training. Yes, there are those who fall right asleep after a cup of coffee, but everyone is different, so it's good to learn how your body reacts to caffeine by testing it out.
  6. Unplug. It's a good idea to turn off all electrics about an hour (or more) before bed. Getting rid of stimulation--including the television, loud music, commercials, computer screens and other distractions--helps your mind relax. Additionally, those electronics emit artificial light that tricks your body into thinking it's daylight, and stops the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Give your body at least an hour to get primed for sleep without all the bright blue screens and electronic distractions.
  7. Cut Down on Alcohol. Alcohol is linked with a decrease in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycles, as well as a delayed sleep onset. Many people recognize that alcohol often causes shallow sleep, frequent waking, tossing and turning. Many people who have more that a glass or tow of alcohol before bed report that they just don't feel like they've had a deep, quality night's rest. If you don't get enough REM sleep, you may find yourself irritable and exhausted the next day.
  8. Get Daily Exercise. This shouldn't be too difficult for an athlete, but getting a least 30 minutes of exercise each day is linked with better sleep quality at night. Even on a rest day, 30 minutes of easy physical activity, such as walking or just stretching, can help you fall asleep faster. While there isn't necessarily a best time to exercise, some people report that exercising before bed makes them too energized and alert, so the experts recommend allowing about 6 hours of time between your exercise session and your bed time.

Sources

Joshua J. Gooley, et al. Exposure to Room Light before Bedtime Suppresses Melatonin Onset and Shortens Melatonin Duration in Humans JCEM 2011 96: E463-E472; doi:10.1210/jc.2010-2098

Get Sleep, Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, [http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/] last accessed July, 2012.

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