Sleep holds a crucial role in one’s health and overall well-being. It is fundamental in achieving optimal physical, mental, and emotional wellness. For athletes, however, performance, recovery, focus, and energy amongst many factors are hinged on getting the right quantity and quality of sleep.
What This Article Is All About?
Athletes spend hours training and take vast amounts of effort to make sure their nutrition is on point. All things considered, sleep’s significance in successful results, reduction in injury, and improvement in recovery cannot be understated.
This article will walk you through the importance of sleep for athletes and tips on improving sleep for athletes.
Let’s get to it.
Understanding Sleep Cycle Physiology
There are four stages of sleep.
A normal sleep cycle lasts one to two hours and occurs in four stages. The first stage is the beginning of the sleep cycle where one is drowsy but easily arousable. The second stage is believed to be the true start of the sleep cycle and can range from 10 to 20 minutes.
After 30-40 minutes, one enters the deep sleep stages 3 and 4. These are followed by Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, which is a period of active sleep. After REM, the cycle repeats from the beginning. The longer hours you sleep, the more REM periods you have.
REM is crucial to the sleeping patterns of athletes due to the increased growth hormone levels and the regulation of the hormone cortisol in the body. The growth hormone is released from the endocrine system and is responsible for the reparative process in the body.
5 Reasons Sleep Is Crucial for Athletes
The following are the reasons sleep is crucial for athletes.
# 1: Sleep Helps Athletes Rebuild Their Muscles
Following bouts of physical activity and exercises, athletes breakdown muscles and create micro-tears. The micro-damage creates a state of inflammation that promotes the repair and rebuilding of muscles.
This is where the growth hormone comes into play.
Sufficient levels of growth hormone are available when an athlete gets enough sleep. This improves the muscle’s abilities to repair and rebuild in preparation for the next training session. Adequate sleep prepares the athlete for another round of microtrauma and restarts the cycle of muscle growth.
# 2: Adequate Sleep Gives a Significant Boost to Athletes’ Performance
Sleep plays a crucial role in helping athletes maintain a top level of performance.
Sleep deprivation is believed to be more detrimental to the athlete’s reflexes, reaction times, and decision making than alcohol intoxication. If an athlete wants to perform consistently, getting adequate amounts of sleep is vital.
Sleep keeps an athlete’s nervous system in top shape. An athlete’s performance relies on a well-tuned nervous system. An optimum functioning nervous system helps maximize his motor memory, focus, sports IQ, and reaction time. Sleep deprivation threatens to impair all these important functions to professional-level play.
Adequate sleep is important for replenishing energy stores within the brain and nervous system. Neuromuscular connections are responsible for improving sports-related motor memory recovery during sleep.
Ever wonder why you can’t seem to make that easy shot from the top of the key? Or why you can’t seem to lift that PR weight you easily put over last week? Lack of sleep may be your problem.
# 3: Sleep Improves Energy Levels
In a recent study, lack of sleep roughly affects 35 percent of Australians.
Researchers have always been perplexed as to what purpose does sleep has in human life? One explanation is that sleep gives your body the ‘rest time’ it needs to restock on the energy lost during the day.
The same goes for an athlete and sleep. We store energy in fat and muscles in the body from the food we eat. After an intense bout of physical activity, these stores are depleted and will need to be replenished. Good sleep facilitates the energy turnover so that there is enough replenished energy in time for the next sporting activity.
Sleep deprivation impairs the body’s ability to make use of the energy within the body. The glucose transfer within the body may be impaired so that less is available for all systems in the body. An athlete can fatigue early and ultimately result in impaired sports performance.
# 4: Sleep Helps Uphold Immunity
Sleep is also important for maintaining the body’s immune system. With adequate sleep, the body produces cytokines needed to protect the body from infection or inflammation. An athlete’s peak immunity performance is during the hours of good quality sleep.
T-cells are among the cells produced in abundance during sleep and play a major role in the immune response against infections.
Following an intense physical activity, the body is naturally in a state of relative stress. It’s during this time that the athlete’s immune system should work overtime to prevent any possible infections to an already susceptible body.
If an athlete is sleep-deprived, the immune system’s ability to produce protective cytokines and cells. In particular, T-cell levels are decreased and this impaired immune system puts the athlete at risk for an infection.
# 5: Sleep Helps Speed up Athletes’ Recovery From Injuries
Because sleep is important in the recovery cycles of athletes, it is equally important for the injured athlete on the road to recovery. This is especially true for athletes suffering from the following injuries:
- Recurrent ligament sprains
- Ligament tears
- Muscle strains
The healing rates for these conditions are believed to be impaired in athletes with sleep deprivation. Sleep extension, defined as prolonging rest beyond the average sleep time, has been used to various degrees of success in performance athletes. Regarding injuries, sleep extension improves early recovery from injuries with early return to sports.
How Much Sleep Does an Athlete Need?
As a general rule of thumb, athletes should aim for at least 8-9 hours of good quality sleep to ensure pristine sports performance. This is a part of good sleep hygiene that athletes need to get used to new environments. Athletes should avoid any late-night activities, and abstain from over-training that can throw off regular sleeping patterns.
Sleep extension is gaining popularity among sports science circles for improving athlete performance. Proponents of sleep extension list the following benefits over traditional sleep durations:
- Improved focus
- Winning performances
- Psychological well-being
Whoever thought getting too much sleep can be good for you? Gone are the days when oversleeping has been associated with laziness or bad habits. Peak athlete performance hinges on good quality sleep. As an example, LeBron James reportedly sleeps for 10-12 hours a day.
Sleep Tips: Importance of Routine Habits for Athletes
The same effort put into training must also apply to sleep. Distractions, stress, nervousness, and environment all factor in getting the optimal rest for athletes.
For those that want to improve their rest and recovery period, here are a few tips to incorporate into their routine.
It is important to follow the same sleep schedule every day, including weekends. Go to bed and wake up at the same time. Create a “before bedtime” habit where the same things are done before going to sleep so your body can get used to this pattern. This will condition your physical and mental state to adapt to your routine so you can drowse off faster.
Any training should be done during the day so the body can unwind at sundown. Doing this can improve your circadian rhythm to follow your daily cycle of activity during the day and sleep at night.
This applies particularly in the days before competition because these two beverages may disrupt restfulness. However, it is best to avoid drinking coffee at night to lessen the chances of impaired sleep behavior.
Unless prescribed by a medical doctor, athletes should not use sleeping medications because these might affect the quality of rest one is getting thus affecting overall performance. It would likely be more helpful to use standard relaxation methods to prepare the body for bed.
Traveling for competitions is unavoidable, so is jet-lag. The best way to get acclimatized to the new location would be to arrive days, or if possible, weeks earlier. The body will better adjust to the new time zone and sleeping environment. This will ultimately result in getting back on a sleep schedule doubly quick.
Sleep is an important determinant of the athlete’s accuracy, reactions, recovery, and overall performance. Sleep should always be included in the top list of factors that are considered in an athlete’s training and lifestyle. The importance of sleep for athletes will keep them at the top of their games.
Dr. Muhammad Usman is a Doctor, Nutritionist, Wellness Coach and a Researcher with a deep insight into all aspects of writing related to health and science.