At one point or another, we’ve all read or been told about the importance of getting enough sleep, but the ubiquity of conflicting information regarding the causes of poor sleep, its consequences, and the recommended amounts can, well, keep us up at night. Mostly because individual requirements for sleep show large variations based on age and lifestyle, so it’s difficult to confidently give blanket recommendations that apply to everyone, despite sleep experts’ efforts to do so.
What we do know for a fact, however, is that sleep-waking cycles are fundamental to our circadian rhythm, and their disruption can have egregious consequences for our health and well-being, including immunosuppression, increased risk of weight gain, car accidents, and gestational diabetes. Because of these risks, the CDC has declared insufficient sleep a public health issue. The National Institutes of Health recommends 7-8 hours of sleep a night for adults, and a few hours more for teens and children — and the majority are not meeting these recommendations.
The sleep needs of athletes specifically is sometimes even more of a question mark. What are the effects of sleep on performance, and what’s the potential for exercise to improve quality of sleep?
Thankfully, these questions have inspired a host of studies that have begun to paint a more clear picture of the unique consequences of sleep deprivation on athletes, as well as the performance benefits to getting more than enough.
What Science Says
It may come as no surprise, but it’s been studied and concluded that adequate (and increased) sleep leads to improved athletic performance, while sleep deprivation, not shockingly, causes negative impacts on performance.
One recent study published in May 2017 in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Allied Health Sciences responded to an issue they recognized in collegiate schedules, especially those of college athletes. “Many college students endure long days of attending courses, completing homework, participating in extracurricular activities, and trying to maintain a social life while getting minimal hours of sleep — college athletes are then tasked with performing their sport at optimal levels.” The study set out to answer the question, “Is there evidence to suggest that athletic performance is altered due to sleep deprivation?”
The study found that “there is B-level evidence that decreased hours of sleep negatively affects optimal athletic performance, whereas, increased hours of sleep positively affects optimal athletic performance.” More specifically, while they found that short-term sleep deprivation only had adverse effects on cognitive function (e.g. reaction time) and not on anaerobic athletic performance, long-term sleep deprivation negatively impacted athletic performance including decreased muscle strength and power, mean sprint time, muscle glycogen concentration, and self-paced exercise.
Inversely, increased hours of sleep led to faster timed sprints and other related sport-specific exercise benefits, ultimately concluding that it’s essential for athletes to get “adequate, if not extra” sleep. In July 2011, The Sleep Research Society published a Stanford University study with similar findings. The study examined 11 healthy students on Stanford’s men’s varsity basketball team and found that increasing the amount of sleep led to:
- Faster timed sprints
- Increased shooting accuracy, with free throw percentage increasing by 9% and a 9.2% increase in 3-pointer accuracy
- Improved physical and mental well-being during practice and games
And that’s not all. As a whole, the science of sleep has also found positive impacts of sleep on the following areas of athletic performance:
- Improved reaction times
- Reduced injury rates
- Improved overall health
- Longer playing careers
- Fewer mental errors
It seems that the behavioural and biological effects of sleep loss are fairly well defined and cannot be ignored by athletic practitioners. The consequences of sleep loss for human error leading to industrial and aviation accidents are recognised in the ergonomics community. In contrast, the impact of such errors in sports activities with physical contact between participants is rarely considered in the sports injuries literature. There are many instances in practice of individuals overcoming sleep disruptions and circadian rhythm disturbances to achieve excellence in competitive outcomes. Identifying the mechanisms by which they can do so provides a real challenge to researchers for the future.
— Thomas Reilly & Ben Edwards, from Altered sleep-wake cycles and physical performance in athletes
In other words, science has clearly proven the critical importance of sleep for not just everyone, but for athletes and their goals specifically. But what about the how? How can athletes ensure they get the sleep they need to optimize performance? Thankfully, science has made progress since the 2006 study cited above.
5 Actionable Solutions
As individual as adequate and proper sleep can be, the recommendations generally fall on a similar trajectory of, ‘get more and better quality of it.’ The unique demands of modern life throw more wrenches into things, often pushing sleep to the back of the priority list. For both athletes and anyone else looking to sleep better, here are a few tips to get on the right track.
1. Make It Part Of The Training Plan
The trick then becomes admitting the importance of sleep and prioritizing it as part of an athletic training program’s rest and recovery portion. Knowing what sleep is doing for you will in turn have a motivational effect. Get more educated on the actual restorative benefits of sleep so that, just like you know what your active training is doing for your body, you’ll know what the passive, internal work is doing. And if you won’t listen to the scientists, take it from these guys and other pro-athletes who average 10-12 hours a night. According to Sam Ramsden, Dir. of Player Health and Performance of the Seattle Seahawks, “sleep is a weapon.”
2. Optimize Sleep Performance
Being an athlete is all about optimizing how your body performs, so why not take the same approach to how you sleep. First, are you sleeping in an optimal environment? According to the National Sleep Foundation, your sleep environment includes your mattress and its immediate surroundings. They recommend the following for a better sleeping environment:
Upgrade your mattress. The Ergonomics Research Group found a number of positive sleep benefits to sleeping on what subjects deemed a “comfortable” mattress. But what does comfortable mean?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of research done on how various sleep surfaces and materials impact sleep quality and perceptions of what comfortable is. Dr. Andrew Krystal, a psychiatrist and sleep researcher at Duke University, spoke with Motherboard and admitted, “it’s a big hole in the scientific literature of sleep.”
What studies have told us, however, is that if your mattress is 5 years or older, you should be in the market for a new one, and you should “seek out one that lets you try it out for more than a minute or two on the showroom floor.” Casper is one such mattress maker who disrupted the industry with their 100-night trial, a benefit that has since been picked up by many other competitors. They also have a history of being transparent about the amount of scientific testing and design that goes into their selection of mattresses made with hybrid materials, all with the intention of being able to claim a more evidence-based impact on sleep quality.
Set the right temperature. Again, this is about what’s comfortable for you, but research shows that somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees fahrenheit is optimal. But why? Throughout the day, our body temperature naturally rises and falls. When we fall asleep, our bodies want to cool down, so the idea is that you want to support your body’s efforts to get cooler, encouraging deeper sleep.
In fact, according to one study, sleeping in a room at around 66 degrees decreased the risk for certain metabolic diseases. In the winter, try out an infrared heater that lets you set your bedroom temperature in a more targeted and controlled way. In the warmer months, again invest in a controlled AC unit that lets you set the temp.
After you’ve assessed your environment, take a look at any personal habits you may need to modify. According to the CDC, you should do the following to practice what they call good sleep hygiene:
Have a regular bed and rise time. This is a double-hitter, because a regular schedule and routine is also one of the best ways to adhere to your training program. It’s all about consistency.
Don’t eat big meals right before bed. This again will likely also align with your training and performance goals as well, and also includes avoiding caffeine and alcohol, which have a direct impact on your body’s ability to properly go through its sleep cycle.
3. Get The Most Out Of Rest Days
On your days off from active training, make sure you take the proper steps towards reducing chances of injury and sleep-disrupting aches and pains by doing mobility and stretch work, including massages.
In other words, don’t neglect the benefits of cross-training with different activities like yoga and restorative LISS cardio like walking.
Getting the proper nutrition will also ensure you’re supporting your body’s unique needs and decreasing chances of injury.
4. Take Naps
Despite your best efforts, there are still many reasons proper sleep may evade you at night. When this happens, do what you can to take naps throughout the day and week. Naps have been shown to have a myriad of benefits, including improved alertness, reaction time, and reducing feelings of fatigue.
5. Get Professional Help
If lifestyle and environmental circumstances have been modified and chronic loss of sleep is still an issue, there is a good chance that there is a real sleep disorder at work behind closed eyes. In fact, according to the CDC, over 70 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder. Again, as with anything else health-related, what’s right for you may be drastically different from someone else, so it’s important to consult your primary physician about an individualized sleep wellness program.