Athletes know that physical activity is an important component of a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise increases longevity and reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Exercise can also reduce the risk for anxiety and depression, and it can help you sleep better.
In order to perform their best, athletes must prepare in every aspect of their lives. They train regularly, eat healthy meals and snacks, and make time for rest, recovery, and sleep. When one area is lacking, overall performance can suffer. Sleep is certainly no exception!
For both athletes and non-athletes, sleep is essential for overall health and wellbeing. Everyone needs sleep in order to feel restored and function their best the next day. Other physical benefits include:
All of these restorative effects are important for athletes’ recovery and performance.
Sleep helps everyone to retain and consolidate memories. When athletes practice or learn new skills, sleep helps form memories, and contributes to improved performance in the future. Without sleep, the pathways in the brain that allow you to learn and make memories can’t be formed or maintained.
Sleep is also essential for cognitive processing. Loss of sleep is associated with a decline in cognitive function. This can have adverse effects on athletes whose sports require a high level of cognitive function, such as decision making and adapting to new situations.
Also, just as exercise can help improve or maintain mental health, sleep is important for maintaining athlete’s mental health. Quality sleep is associated with improving overall mood. Healthy sleep prevents irritability and decreases the risk of developments such as depression.
Both increased quantity and quality of sleep helps athletes improve performance in many areas related to the demands of the sport.
Poor quality and quantity of sleep lead to several negative effects in any person. Mentally, sleep deprivation reduces the ability to react quickly and think clearly. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to make poor decisions and take risks. A lack of sleep also increases irritability and risk for anxiety and depression. Physically, a lack of sleep increases the risk for many medical concerns, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and stroke.
While quality sleep has positive effects specifically on athletic performance, a lack of sleep is detrimental to performance. A great number of concerns can arise when athletes do not receive adequate sleep:
Evidence shows that more sleep, or extended sleep, can benefit athletes, their recovery, and their performance. Recommendations for athletes range between seven and nine hours nightly. Elite athletes are encouraged to get at least nine hours of sleep nightly and to treat sleep with as much importance as athletic training and diet. In contrast, people who exercise moderately likely do not need as much sleep as elite performers. Standard sleep guidelines are appropriate.
While it is not recommended for some sleepers, such as those with insomnia, napping after a night of inadequate sleep can benefit athletes. Athletes who anticipate a night of inadequate sleep can also benefit from extending their sleep in the nights beforehand. Additional sleep is encouraged before events such as traveling to competitions, before a heavy competition, and during times of illness or injury.
For some types of athletes, waking early has more of a negative impact than staying up late. A study of judo athletes showed that sleep deprivation at the end of the sleeping time (i.e., early morning) decreased power and muscle strength the following day. If early wake times are affecting your performance, consider consulting your coach to determine a training and competition schedule that best meets your needs.
Different functions happen throughout each of the stages of sleep, and all are necessary in order to have healthy sleep. But are there any parts of the sleep cycle that are particularly beneficial to athletes?
The results of a study of Norwegian chess players suggest so. Of the players studied, those who improved their chess ranking had different sleep patterns from the players whose chess rankings dropped. The sleep patterns of the improved players had less rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, higher amounts of deep sleep, and lower respiration rates.
Sleep hygiene is important for all people to sleep well. Common components include:
In addition to these sleep hygiene tips, other habits especially important for athletes are to:
Another aspect of sleep quality athletes need to consider is the effects of jet lag. When traveling to different time zones for competitions, athletes can get out of their natural circadian phase. This means athletes may experience fatigue or the inability to perform their best. For example, West Coast American football teams play significantly better during evening home games than the visiting East Coast teams.
To combat the negative effects of jet lag, athletes should consider additional sleep hygiene tips for travel: