Better sleep for athletes: nine easy lessons
In our quest to become fitter, stronger and faster we work on everything from nutrition to flexibility yet rarely think about sleep, often leaving our night's rest a misunderstood lottery. We go to bed, close our eyes, and may as well throw dice for all we know about how the night ahead will pan out. Sometimes we sleep eight hours and feel terrible, other times we sleep three and feel great.
But sleep is a powerful performance weapon and a free one at that, which is why we've produced this simple guide on better sleep for athletes - with a little focus you too can turn your night's sleep into a powerful training aid.
It's time to go to sleep school.
Better sleep for athletes 1: the basics
For a good night’s sleep you will need:
- A regular routine of bedtimes and waking times
- To avoid meals within three hours of going to bed, and TV and illuminated screens within an hour
- To cut caffeine after lunch
- A bedroom that is quiet, cool, dark, free of electric gadgets, uncluttered and devoted to sleep
Better sleep for athletes 2: sleep matters
“Sleeping is part of training,” says Dr Mike Loosemore, team doctor to the highly successful British Olympic boxing team.
For Loosemore sleep was so pivotal to performance he forbade those boxing within 48 hours of the Olympics starting from attending the opening ceremony.
Those who went to the ceremony instead he says, “suffered badly. It had such a negative effect on their performance and that was almost entirely due to lack of sleep”.
Sleep hard, punch harder
Sleep’s importance for performance is an increasingly hot topic.
According to Dr Chris Idzikowski of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, “a quick search on PubMed (a key online medical research database) now shows over 120,000 papers on the subject”.
And this research is increasingly filtering into elite sport, with Team Sky and other top pro cycling teams for example who routinely travel with their own mattresses for a consistent night’s kip when training and racing.
Better sleep for athletes 3: unleash the power of the power nap
“The basic suggestion is athletes should sleep between nine and ten hours a day,” says Dr Jason Ellis, director of the Centre for Sleep Research at Northumbria University. “80-90per cent should be at night, the rest in a daytime nap”.
Sensible enough but the trouble, as Ellis points out is, “this doesn’t reflect individual needs. More time in bed than you need leads to more risk of sleep fragmentation. Additional napping only increases the problem. More work is needed to discover the sleep needs of the individual otherwise we’ll just be creating the next generation of insomniacs.”
Which isn’t to say napping doesn’t have benefits. Dr Ben Edwards of Liverpool John Moore’s University explains, “powernaps can be used to offset sleep deprivation”.
In one of his experiments subjects with habitual eight-hour sleep patterns were allowed just three hours’ sleep over two nights, before an hour’s powernap.
“Using the powernap lead to tiredness and alertness scores the same as those for a control group who had slept normally. That powernap has a restorative affect”.
Backing up the idea you don’t need to make up for every hour of lost sleep to recover is Professor Jim Horne, director of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre, who says, “only part of lost sleep is needed to offset sleep loss. Lose 72 hours of sleep and you can recover with ten. It is amazing how you can recover”.
To work though, napping must be used only when needed. “If you’ve had enough sleep you don’t need a nap,” says Edwards. Which brings us to lesson four…
Better sleep for athletes 4: sleep and growth hormone production
Bodybuilders love sleep because it’s a source of naturally available growth hormone, or at least that’s the theory and it makes sense: we produce more growth hormone in deep sleep, so more deep sleep must equal more growth hormone, right?
According to Horne, “the sleep-related growth hormone surge is not anabolic but protective against the sleep fast and stops us consuming muscle as we sleep”
“Very few mammals go through this fasting state at night. They either sleep less so are regularly eating or they wake up to eat before going back to sleep. We’re unusual because we have a physiological fast when we sleep”.
A related theory Horne is keen to challenge is the citing of increased mitosis (cell division) during sleep as further evidence of its physically restorative properties.
“This (increased mitosis) is related to the prolonged break from feeding in sleep and is circadian (related to our natural 24 hour rhythm), not due to growth hormone release”.
More sleep doesn't mean more growth hormone. For muscle development sleep quality matters most
Better sleep for athletes 5: sleep deprivation doesn’t affect strength
In the sleep deprivation studies mentioned earlier, Edwards found his sleep-deprived subjects had, “the same physical performance” as the group who slept normally, while at Loughborough University Dr Louise Reyner saw, “no correlation between the amount of sleep subjects had and their results,” in a study where athletes had to perform a maximal effort swim after being sleep deprived.
But there is still a concrete link between time of day and physical performance.
“Muscular performance is lowest between four and eight am, and highest between four and eight pm, on any measure,” says Edwards. “Strength peaks around six pm and will be around seven per cent higher than the lowest result for the day”.
But tiredness is not responsible for these variations, it simply increases our perception of effort which may cause weaker performance.
As Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Surrey Sleep research Centre puts it, “perceived effort increases as sleep decreases. The objective measure of the outcome may not change, but our perception of it does”.
Horne agrees, saying there is, “limited evidence sleep improves muscle recovery although it may improve motivation and mental state”.
In short, morning weakness is all in the mind.
Better sleep for athletes 6: it’s all in your head
As Horne explains in the abstract to his recent presentation at the Royal Society of Medicine titled, ‘Sleep, exercise and the brain’, “other organs [in the body], especially exercising muscles, can fully recover in resting wakefulness,” but the one organ which cannot be rested at any time other than in sleep is our cerebral cortex.
This is the organ with the highest constant waking workload in our body and one which demands 20 per cent of our total oxygen uptake despite only making up two per cent of our bodyweight.
“Sleep loss primarily affects the cerebral cortex,” says Horne, “and decreases high level thinking”.
This makes us more easily distracted, less able to implement new strategies, more reliant on habit and gives us less control of our moods and both our performance, and perception of it.
This has disastrous affects for, “fast-paced, rapidly changing sports,” says Horne. “You’ll be less able to spot deceptive actions, modify tactics or deal with the unexpected”.
You will, quite literally, be caught napping.
Worse still, being tired means you may not even recognise the problem.
Better sleep for athletes 7: exercise volume and sleep quality
Popular wisdom says exercise improves sleep, but recent scientific studies are showing the opposite.
“The assumption athletes sleep well is not shown in the data,” says Jan Dijk.
“Studies show many athletes have poor sleep”.
One such study took 890 elite South African athletes and found 33 per cent had irregular sleep patterns and 41 per cent had trouble getting to sleep, while a Loughborough University study examining 800 nights of sleep data from top level footballers showed they have far worse sleep than the average population.
Heavy exercise: not always great for sleep quality
On paper, this looks like bad news for anyone who likes exercise. However, there are factors science has not accounted for.
- Those who train hard may have different sleeping patterns to the regular population precisely because they are physically different. Their graphs may look weird next to a regular set, but who’s to say that’s a bad thing?
- Environmental factors could be skewing results. Pro footballers for example are not known for their peaceful lifestyles, regular early nights, or for the lack of excitement in their daily lives. They could be damaging their sleep with these, not their training.
The good news is you need to be training at an extreme level to damage your sleep.
According to various studies exercising for less than an hour has little affect either way (Walker et al, 1978), while exercising between one and four hours can reliably increase deep sleep (Bunnell et al, 1983). Problems only really kick in when you tip the over four-hour mark (Driver and Taylor, 1996).
Better sleep for athletes 8: it's in the genes
“There are genetic predictors of whether you're a morning or night person,” says Jan Dijk citing a recent study from Cape Town University identifying the Period 3 gene (PER3) as a key determinant here. The study showed people with the long version of this gene (PER3 (5) favoured mornings, while those with the shorter version (PER 3 (4)) preferred nighttimes.
Testing this theory further, the study sampled 294 cyclists, runners and Ironman triathletes against a non-exercising control population and found the athletes were overwhelmingly in the morning camp, both in terms of their stated preferences for training time and in their genetic makeup showing a much greater prevalence of the longer PER 3 (5) gene than the control group.
“Runners, triathletes and cyclists are almost all morning types”, says Jan Dijk
Up with the sun or night owl? Genetics play a strong part in which works best for you
Better sleep for athletes 9: how much sleep do you really need?
“The average night’s sleep is 7.04 hours,” says Jan Dijk, suggesting we are all in sleep debt if eight hours genuinely is the benchmark, although even this may not truly be enough.
“If you give healthy people who sleep well 16 hours to sleep, they will sleep for around 12 suggesting even in good sleepers there is a sleep debt of four hours. Over time, the same group will settle to sleeping 8.9 hours.”
To find out how much sleep your body naturally needs, you have to remove all restrictions on sleeping time says Idzikowski.
“Go to bed at the same time every night, give yourself too long to sleep and allow yourself to wake up normally. Do this for two weeks – even longer is better – and your natural time will come out”.
If Jan Dijk’s correct, you could find yourself needing more sleep than you have time for.
In this case, Idzikowski suggests keeping a sleep diary, recording bedtime, wake time, factors that could have affected your sleep (food, social, stress, etc) and how you felt in the morning. This will build a picture of your sleep patterns allowing you to identify the things that disrupt your sleep and avoid them when necessary to maximise sleep quality. Once quality is controllable, you can experiment reducing your sleep time from the optimal level set in your test by an hour at a time progressively to see if a compromise exists.
Better sleep for athletes: conclusion
Even the greatest sleep science minds agree there is much more to learn about our sleep, but the biggest consistent takeaway is we can all sleep better if we want to.
While apps, wearables and monitors abound, the single most useful starting point for anyone wanting to take control of their sleep is the good old-fashioned paper and pen.
Recording your sleep habits – bedtimes, wake times, and how you felt – will be an illuminating experience and chances are you’ll discover you sleep both less, and less regularly, than you think.
For physical performance benefits, optimising your sleep means finding your natural sleeping time, then experimenting to work out which lifestyle factors (caffeine, stress, bright screens, etc) affect your sleep. With these ironed out, you can settle in to hitting your perfect sleep targets.
But whatever your aims remember too much sleep isn’t always better, and that naps are worth their weight in gold.
Sleep well, get strong, go fast
You've just had a good night, now it's time for a great morning!
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