“At a very young age I learned how important sleep was.
I really can’t say it enough.
I don’t think people really pay enough attention to how important sleep is,”
- Michael Phelps -
When discussing what is important to achieving your sporting dreams, endorsements do not ring any louder than the World’s most successful ever Olympian. In this regard, Phelps is in a league of his own. Rather than asking you to take the word of this author I thought I would depend upon a more powerful recommendation.
Intuitively we all understand that sleep is intrinsically linked to performing effectively in daily life, whether we are a student, athlete or Average Joe. Sleep deprivation leaves us fatigued, irritable and unable to perform at our best. Most of you reading this article no doubt have at least a basic understanding of the necessity for sleep to perform well academically and athletically; perhaps you even have an appreciation for some finer details. Whatever your knowledge of the science of sleep, reading this article shall hopefully provide you with a deeper understanding of the value of sleep, the harsh penalties of inadequate sleep and, for those already well versed on these topics, provide strategies for enhancing sleep. Finally, it is hoped to encourage those already armed with the requisite knowledge to take that hardest final step of applying what they know.
Sleep your way to sporting success
Lack of sleep has been identified as a public health problem in this modern, highly stimulating world, with athletes considered among the higher risk populations for inadequate sleep. When you consider the demands placed upon the time of the student athlete; training, practice, classes, study and revision, exams, perhaps a part-time job to support your studies plus an active social life, then achieving adequate sleep and recovery can become an unenviable challenge.
Image 1. Infographic detailing the average sleep hours of many global sports stars. Adapted from “Sleep To Be An All-Star”, Coach Mah.
As demonstrated by the quote from Michael Phelps and the honor roll of international sports stars in the image above, the world’s most successful athletes have a keen appreciation of the importance of sleep with the likes of Roger Federer and LeBron James getting up to 12 hours of sleep a night.
Fundamentally we all agree that a good night’s sleep is essential to performing effectively. But just why is this? What does a lack of sleep cost us or, alternatively, how do we benefit from a restorative night’s sleep? There are a multitude of benefits to sleep and recovery, providing cognitive as well as physical benefits.
Physical Effects of Sleep
Strength and Muscle Protein Metabolism
Inadequate sleep leads to decrease in strength expression; after just 4 days of restricted sleep athletes maximum bench press (20lbs), leg press and deadlift is diminished. Disturbed sleep negatively impacts muscle protein balance, via increased levels of catabolic hormones (those that promote muscle tissue breakdown) and a decrease in levels of anabolic hormones (those that promote muscle tissue synthesis). Collectively this will blunt adaptation to resistance training.
Three nights of sleep restriction has been shown to reduce maximal force output. Those suffering frequent periods of inadequate sleep, as is common in students, would expect to observe reduced training performance and consequently fail to realise the full benefits possible from a given training programme.
Physical Performance and accuracy
Sleep extension improved sprint performance and hitting accuracy (42%) in collegiate tennis players. Similarly, extending sleep beyond habitual levels led to an almost 10% improvement in free throw and 3-point shot accuracy and reduced sprint times in collegiate basketball players. A similar relationship between sleep duration and performance has been demonstrated in other sports too, such as weightlifting, netball and swimming.
Multiple studies have shown a link between decreased sleep and injury rates. The study by Milewski et al (2015) concluded that teenage athletes sleeping fewer than 8 hours a night were 1.7x more likely to suffer an injury than their peers who slept 8 or more hours a night. Other studies support this link between decreased sleep and increasing susceptibility to injury. This goes without saying, but if you are injured you can’t train, improve and most importantly play! Fatigue also dampens the body’s immune system making you more vulnerable to illness.
Cognitive Effects of Sleep
Impaired sleep negatively impacts many cognitive processes including memory and learning, decision making, motivation and focus.
Studies show that sleep deprivation can increase reaction times in excess of 300%. Fatigue due to insufficient sleep impairs reaction times in a similar manner to drinking alcohol. Given that success or failure in sport is measured by fractions of a second you would not want to give your opponent an advantage because you didn’t spend enough time in bed!
Sleep deprivation leads to an almost 20% increase in the perception of the challenge presented by moderate to high intensity exercise. Coupled with the knowledge that sleep extension boosts daytime alertness, vigilance and mood it is clear to see how sleep can enhance the ability to tolerate high load training periods.
Extensive review of the scientific research shows that in relation to athletic performance, sleep has an impact upon:
Student Athletes and Sleep
Student athletes are an interesting population to consider with regards to sleep. On the one hand, their need for good quality sleep is extremely high with psychological and physical stress conferred from their studies, their athletic endeavours and perhaps employment to support their academic career. On the other hand, this combination of stresses in addition to potential early mornings, for scheduled sports practice or other commitments, and probable late nights, for social activities, studies or part time employment, book-end a full day of classes and training. The paradox is that whilst their need may be amongst the highest, they are very likely to be getting less sleep than the average person.
Extending Your Playing Career
A study that tracked 80 Major League Baseball players from across 3 seasons found a linear relationship between fatigue and a shortened major league career as a result of being demoted to a lower league, going unsigned or no longer being an active player. The impact of a shortened career due to fatigue is clear.
"Sleep. It's the No. 1 thing for me."
- Vince Carter (at 42-years-old, the NBA's oldest active player)
Causes of Disturbed Sleep
A meta-analysis from last year (Roberts, 2019) reinforced that athletes often struggle to meet sleep guidelines. Factors that may contribute to this include competition, early scheduled training sessions, school and work-related stress, travel & jet-lag, and large increases in training load. Whilst acknowledging that this is a prevalent problem it does, however, provide an opportunity to get a jump on the competition through enhancing your own sleep habits.
Chronotype refers to an individual’s preference for when they sleep and at what time of the day they feel most alert. This a genetic trait describing whether you are more of a morning person or an evening person. The early bird will often wake up without an alarm, not feel fatigue during the day and go to sleep earlier. The night owl will still be going strong late into the night, often hits snooze multiple times and needs caffeine to get them through the morning.
This concept is introduced because where possible you can use knowledge of your chronotype to your advantage. For example, morning people can aim to tackle important study tasks during the morning, whereas the night owl may leave such tasks to later in the day. Chronotype should also be taken into account when coaches and athletes themselves plan sleep optimisation strategies. More on this later.
Napping has long been a tool recommended to counteract the effects of insufficient night time sleep. Many researchers and athletes are proponents of short day-time napping to reenergise body and mind. Napping has physical and cognitive benefits with athletes showing enhanced 30m sprint performance after a night of sleep deprivation compared to peers who did not nap.
General recommendations for napping include aiming for around 20-30 minutes post lunch, between 1 and 4pm. Napping too late in the day may have a negative impact on night time sleep, cancelling out any benefit of the daytime nap. Napping for too long, similarly, may detract from night time sleeping and leave the athlete feeling fatigued when they wake from the nap. Other recommendations to off-set the feeling of fatigue on waking include ingestion of caffeine prior to the nap, bright lights and immediate face washing post-nap.
If you regularly wake early for training, daytime napping will help offset some of the sleep debt and the associated negative consequences. Depending on the student-athlete’s schedule, day time napping may be difficult to fit in, but it is strongly recommended if you have the opportunity.
A 2015 study by Mann and colleague found that periods of high academic stress, i.e. around examination periods, led to greater injury occurrence in division I collegiate football players (whether they played regularly or not). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the additional academic stress had an even greater impact on injury incidence in those who played regularly and thus had a higher physical stress load to accommodate. The authors recommended that coaches should periodise training to account for periods of academic stress, tapering the physical work load at these times.
This is an important issue for the student athlete to be aware of, ensuring that your sleep routines are well developed so that when examination periods arise your body and mind is better prepared to handle this increase in academic and overall stress.
Strategies to Improve Sleep
“We’re teaching our players: Sleep is a weapon.”
- Sam Ramsden, Dir. of Player Health and Performance, Seattle Seahawks
Understand that one night of bad sleep is not make or break for a championship performance. It is consecutive days of inadequate sleep that become a problem. However, there are steps you can take to set up a solid sleep routine, so that if nerves do get the better of you before the big game (as is common for many athletes) you are well placed to absorb a single night of less than ideal rest.
Image 2. Infographic from renowned Sports Scientist Yann Le Meur depicting the work of Marshall et al (2016) outlining strategies for athletes to optimise sleep.
Pre-Sleep and Wake Routines
Student-athletes can take steps to enhance the quality and duration of their sleep. Waking and going to sleep at consistent times, in combination with light exposure in the morning and avoiding blue-light emitting devices at night can help the release of melatonin within the body (melatonin production is stimulated by darkness and released at night to induce sleep).
Given the relationship between stress, anxiety and sleep disturbances a common recommendation of a pre-sleep routine is to “download” your thoughts onto paper before you go to bed, allowing you to unburden your mind and enjoy a pleasant night’s sleep.
In planning sleep recommendations for athletes, it is important to consider their chronotype and ensure the guidelines fit with the individual. It would be counter-productive planning an early night’s sleep for a late chronotype for whom the better strategy may revolve around planning and optimising napping.
Creating an optimal sleep environment
There are a few elements you can focus on to make your bedroom the ideal sleeping space; namely light, sound and the temperature. Maintaining room temperature at around 65°F or 18°C facilitates better sleep. Consider your choice of bedding and clothing to ensure temperature does not disturb your sleep. Ensure your bedroom is your quiet sanctuary, although white noise may help some sleep.
In appreciating the link between darkness and melatonin release, light exposure in this modern world is of particular importance. Technology use should ideally be limited one to two hours prior to sleeping to limit exposure to blue light. Where this is not possible be sure to make use of blue light blocking functions of your smart phones or tables. (Elite sports teams are experimenting with technology like blue-light blocking glasses so additional tools may become available). Keeping technology out of the bedroom and utilising black out blinds is highly recommended. Eye masks and ear plugs are also potentially useful tools.
Note: technology use prior to sleep may prevent athletes from switching off prior to sleep. Those who frequently browse social media report a reduction in sleep of almost one hour per night!
We are all familiar with the world’s number one consumed stimulant. Caffeine can be beneficial to competition performance or to boost a tough training session when lack of sleep leads to flagging energy levels and motivation. Caffeine ingestion has been able to attenuate the drop off in performance seen with restricted sleep. Student-athletes must, however, be careful in the timing of caffeine consumption to avoid negatively impacting night time sleep. Due to the long half life of the substance (caffeine stays around in your system for a long time after ingesting) it is recommended you avoid caffeine use from early afternoon onwards. (Of course, student-athletes also need to be aware of NCAA rules on caffeine consumption)
Like caffeine use, group training can provide a stimulus to training sessions. The boost social facilitation can bring to training sessions may reenergise the fatigues athlete and encourage a higher level of motivation and training output.
Many coaches, and perhaps athletes, are married to the training plan. It is the perfectly crafted training plan that will deliver the results. So, this final suggestion may be hard to swallow. However, as unwelcome as it may be, it is a necessary strategy. When stress is high and the athlete is struggling with fatigue it will be necessary to make adjustments to the training load. The example from Mann et al (2015) was already described, whereby greater academic stress led to a recommendation for reduced training load. An athlete’s ability to tolerate a given training programme is inextricably linked to their ability to recover. Where sleep is impaired and tolerance to stress is inhibited adjustments to the training plan are inevitable.
Sleep is vital in most walks in life. You need to be well recovered to perform at your best. The student-athlete’s need is perhaps greater than most with a number of physical and cognitive stresses challenging your ability to recover. Whilst the occasional night of insufficient sleep is likely unavoidable, there are steps you can take to ensure these are few and far between. By optimising your sleep hygiene and daily habits you can maximise your recovery and ensure you benefit from the many and varied and physical benefits garnered from regular, high quality night’s of sleep.
Bookend your day with regular wake and sleep times.
Get sunlight into your eyes early in the morning to create the right cycle of melatonin production.
Strategically use short, 20-30 minute naps in the early afternoon to compliment night time sleep.
Avoid caffeine from early afternoon.
Switch off from electronics and social media 1-2 hours before bed time. Keep electronics out of the bedroom.
Download your day onto paper before sleep to reduce stress and facilitate better sleep.
Set-up the ideal sleep environment in your bedroom:
- Blackout blinds or an eye mask to minimise light exposure.
- Ensure it is a quiet space and or use ear buds and white noise.
- Ensure a cool temperature of around 65°F / 18°C.
Remember one night of bad sleep is not make or break before the big game. If you implement the above strategies over the days, weeks and months then a history of solid sleep behaviours will more than compensate for one night of nerves.
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About the Author:
Chris Gallagher is an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach with both the NSCA and ASCA (Level 3). After qualifying from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Strength and Conditioning, Chris has over a decade of experience coaching athletes from the grassroots level all the way through to Olympians. In a career spanning Europe and Asia, he has coached athletes to World Championships in several sports with a particular focus on Strength and Power Athletes.
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LinkedIn: Chris Gallagher (LinkedIn)