From Good to Great: How Sleep Can Improve Athletic Achievements

We all know the importance of sleep and should prioritize getting enough of it. But did you know that getting optimal sleep can dramatically affect the speed at which the brain reacts to stimuli? While that might not be a top priority for most of us, it's crucial for sports professionals whose lives and careers depend on their reaction times.

How does lack of sleep affect athletic performance?

Getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep is crucial for maintaining optimal reaction times, with an average of around 0.25 seconds. However, with less than 6 hours of sleep, reaction times can triple to about 0.75 seconds. This significant delay in response can have a profound impact, especially for athletes where even small differences in milliseconds can make a significant difference in performance.

The reaction times are only one factor, as there are many more reasons why sleep is essential for athletes. Other negative effects induced by lack of sleep may include:

  • Memory and learning. Imagine that you have a 'save' button in your brain — the more you sleep, the better this button function works. Your skills form faster, and your body can remember new movements with greater proficiency.
  • Risk of injury. Sleeping 6 hours or less can double the risk of injuries. This may be caused due to daytime sleepiness, impaired attention, and decreased reaction times.
  • Inflammatory reactions. Physical exertion can trigger inflammatory reactions in the body, such as swelling in a pitcher's hand after a baseball game or inflammation in a quarterback's shoulder. Adequate, high-quality sleep enhances the body's ability to manage inflammation, leading to faster healing and recovery.
  • Energy replenishment. Without energy, we experience reduced motivation and increased fatigue, while the body struggles to eliminate toxins and repair tissue damage effectively.
  • Hormone secretion. Getting optimal sleep gives the body the time it needs to produce an adequate supply of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.
  • Mental health and decision making. Lack of sleep can negatively affect your mood and overall emotional well-being. You can become irritable and short-tempered. In addition, decision making becomes more difficult, and we tend to make poorer choices when we are sleep-deprived.

How to get a good night’s sleep

The best way to improve your sleep is to develop healthy sleep hygiene. Maintaining this routine is recommended for everyone, especially athletes. Listed below are the things you should think about if you want to improve your sleep.

  1. Have a fixed wake-up time. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help improve your rest. Don't forget to get enough daylight during the day to help with your sleep-wake cycle.
  2. Don't use electronics before bed. Unplug from electronics at least an hour before bedtime. Limiting your blue light exposure can improve sleep hormone secretion, which helps you initiate and maintain sleep. In general, avoid any stimulating activities before bed.
  3. Prepare your sleeping environment. Set a cool yet comfortable temperature in the room. It is easier to fall asleep if the bedroom is aired out, and in general has a cooler temperature than the rest of the living areas. This also includes noise-free surroundings and a quality mattress.
  4. Be cautious of what you drink and eat before night. Plan your dinner at least several hours before bedtime, as this allows your body to party digest the food. If you feel very hungry before bedtime, try to limit food to a small snack, instead of heavy and calorie-rich foods. Moreover, you should limit your caffeinated drinks to the first half of the day since it is a strong stimulant.
  5. Use methods of relaxation. Stress plays a big part in disturbing a good night's rest. Try different stress-relief techniques and find which works best for you. Calming activities like meditation or reading might be a good place to start.

Why do athletes find it hard to get a good night's sleep?

As mentioned before, sleep is very individual. Some people never experience any issues with their nighttime rest, while some find it difficult to initiate or maintain sleep. Some research suggests that athletes sleep less and their sleep quality is worse compared to non-athletes. Let's take a look at the most common factors affecting the quality of sleep of professional athletes.

Anxiety

When we are stressed, cortisol is released, which is the wakefulness hormone. Athletes, constantly striving to improve their performance metrics, frequently experience heightened stress and anxiety before and after competitions. This pre-competition anxiety is akin to the nervousness many individuals feel before important events requiring performance.

Moreover, athletes are frequently exposed to screens emitting unnatural blue light and loud noise from crowds and stadium music. This combination of factors can overstimulate the brain and nervous system, making it difficult for athletes to wind down and sleep effectively. Regardless of the outcome of competitions, the intense emotions coupled with exposure to stimulating environments can significantly impact the quality and duration of an athlete's sleep.

Physical load

Engaging in strenuous physical activity close to bedtime can interfere with sleep, despite the common belief that exhaustion aids in falling asleep. It's advisable to allow ample time to unwind before bedtime. Moreover, heavy workouts may trigger intense hunger, potentially leading to larger, calorie-heavy meals, which can further disrupt sleep quality.

Jet lag

Jet lag poses a significant challenge to quality sleep. When traveling between time zones, our circadian clock doesn't adjust automatically, leading to disruptions in our sleep-wake cycle. The greater the difference between our current time zone and the destination, the more pronounced the jet lag. For many athletes who frequently travel for tournaments and games, jet lag is a common occurrence and can be highly draining on energy levels.

Caffeine

Caffeinated beverages are commonly relied upon to increase cognitive performance, and many pre- and post-workout supplements contain high levels of caffeine. However, excessive caffeine intake can disrupt sleep onset. While moderate caffeine consumption is normal, some individuals may be more sensitive to its effects. As mentioned earlier, it's important to avoid consuming caffeine close to bedtime to ensure optimal sleep quality.

How much sleep as an athlete do you need?

The general recommendation for adults is to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. However, some studies suggest that athletes may require even more sleep to optimize their performance and recovery from intense physical activity. While individual sleep needs vary, certain literature suggests that athletes may benefit from around 80 hours of sleep per week, including both nighttime sleep and naps. This equates to slightly over 11 hours of sleep per 24-hour period. While achieving this amount of sleep may not always be feasible, current research shows that athletes do benefit from higher-than-average amounts of sleep.

Maintaining good sleep hygiene and a healthy lifestyle is key to ensuring adequate and quality sleep. A useful guideline is to gauge your sleep sufficiency based on how you feel during the day: if you're active, engaged, and motivated, waking up refreshed and ready for the day, you likely have sufficient and quality sleep. Conversely, feelings of daytime sleepiness, fatigue, or lack of motivation may indicate insufficient rest. If you continue to experience sleep difficulties despite adhering to good sleep habits, it's advisable to seek assistance from a healthcare provider.

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