Why is it always the most basic things that we (athletes) so often skip over in favor of fancy/trendy/quick-fix solutions to get healthier, faster, or stronger? I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time I’ve done a consult with an athlete who tells me they don’t understand why they can’t lose weight, is constantly sick, or is willing to take ten different supplements but refuses to prioritize sleep. They will do anything BUT get more sleep. I’d never go so far as to say that sleep is the answer to all of our problems… but it certainly is the one big life booster athletes aren’t taking advantage of. We are in the heart of race season; why would you be willing to leave better performance, immunity, and recovery on the table?
Sleep is extremely important for performance, recovery, muscular development and physical and mental health. From an athletic perspective, lacking sleep can result in reductions in performance, immune function and an increased susceptibility to weight gain. In addition, there are also a number of biological functions that can be altered following sleep deprivation. Changes in glucose metabolism and neuroendocrine function as a result of chronic, partial sleep deprivation may result in alterations in carbohydrate metabolism, appetite, food intake, and protein synthesis. Ultimately these factors can all negatively influence an athlete’s nutritional, metabolic and endocrine status and hence potentially reduce athletic performance. With so many athletes looking to make changes in body composition it would seem logical that prioritizing sleep would be the first line of attack.
Did you know:
What about the mental health impacts of sleep? Many athletes prioritize their physical health, ignoring their mental state. Even though the ‘triathlete lifestyle’ can be good for the mind, this can also come with many stresses and anxiety due to high training volume and performance nerves. Sleep quality is heavily linked with mood during the day, and can work in preventing irritability, depression and anxiety. It’s a viscous cycle… if you don’t get enough sleep over a prolonged period of time, you can experience memory loss, lowered cognitive processing, slower reaction times, weight gain, and impaired judgement. Then when you’re feeling awful you end up more anxious, stressed and depressed.
How much do you need?
Athletes need 7-9 hours. Yes, some individuals can be successful on 6-7 hours but they aren’t the norm. Professional athletes don’t just have good training and nutrition habits; they have solid sleep habits as well. A study compared the sleep habits of 26 elite athletes from Olympic Sports (Canoeing, n=11; Diving, n=14; Rowing, n=10; Short-track speed skating, n=11) using actigraphy over a four- day period to that of age-and sex-matched non-sporting controls. The athlete group had a total time in bed of 8:36 ± 0:53 hr:min. How many age-group athletes are getting eight and a half hours of sleep every night?
How to get more?
- Create a sleep schedule – make a plan, set an appointment, establish bedtimes and wake-up times. It also helps to be consistent with when you fall asleep and wake up each day.
- Design a comfortable sleeping environment – dark, cool, quiet, technology free, and promoting a feeling of relaxation/peace.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Cut down on screen time – yes, we mean get off social media, turn off the work phone, stop reading emails and pick up a book.
- Consider a pre-bed 40g protein feed. *to meet daily protein needs, help with satiety and speed up sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep) – which kind of protein you ask… it really comes down to dietary preference but most literature suggests whey or casein due to their amino acid profile, ease of digestion and bioavailability. And before anyone asks… Data from men and women indicate that protein pre-sleep does not change overnight fat metabolism.
Andrew Huberman touts sleep as, “THE foundation of our mental and physical health and performance in all endeavors,” and says sleep is the best nootropic, stress reliever, immune booster, and emotional stabilizer, among other benefits.
If you are neglecting sleep – use this as the ‘wakeup call’ (for lack of a better phrase) to make some immediate priority changes. Sleep should be a non-negotiable component of your training plan.
- Fallon, K.E. (2007). Blood tests in tired elite athletes: expectations of athletes, coaches and sport science/sports medicine staff. Br. J. Sports Med. 41:41-4.
- Leeder, J., M. Glaister, K. Pizzoferro, J. Dawson, and C. Pedlar (2012). Sleep duration and quality in elite athletes measured using wristwatch actigraphy. J Sports Sci. 30:541- 545.
- Reilly, T., and A. Hales (1988). Effects of partial sleep deprivation on performance measures in females. In: E.D. McGraw (ed). Contemporary Ergonomics. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 509-513.
- Reilly, T., and M. Piercy (1994). The effect of partial sleep deprivation on weight-lifting performance. Ergonomics. 37:107-15.
- Walsh NP, Halson SL, Sargent C, et al - Sleep and the athlete: narrative review and 2021 expert consensus recommendations British Journal of Sports Medicine 2021;55:356-368.
- Watson AM. Sleep and Athletic Performance. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2017 Nov/Dec;16(6):413-418. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000418. PMID: 29135639.