Getting a good night’s sleep can be life-changing. Waking up refreshed and regenerated can change your entire outlook. But, did you know proper sleep can actually alter your body’s chemistry, it’s ability to recover and sport performance as well?
If you are lucky enough to live to the age of 80, chances are you have averaged (over your entire lifetime) more than 9500 DAYS sleeping. That would be approximately 33% of your life or roughly 26 years. This topic deserves your full attention!
Unless you have had trouble with sleeping in the past, you may not have given it much thought. There are plenty of studies on the benefits of sleep and what goes wrong if you don’t get enough but only recently scientists are starting to delve into sleep and maximizing athletic performance.
Here we will break things down in a general sense and let you know why and how we sleep. We will talk about what some of the benefits and risks are to your health with regard to the optimum quality and quantity of sleep. Then, we will delve into the how. How to sleep for optimal performance and some tools for tracking, monitoring and improving your regenerating time.
How and Why We Sleep:
The Circadian Rhythm has been used to describe biological phenomena that occur over a 24 hour period. Derived from Latin circa means about, approximately and dies translates to a day or 24 hour period. So, humans have this “internal clock” that is regulated by structures in the brain. This daily clock is affected by time, (how long you’ve been awake) light exposure and Melatonin. This hormone is produced in the brain and is found in high concentration at night. It is what helps to make you tired and also has a role in the body’s immune response. Needless to say, it’s an important chemical that you make while sleeping.
During an ideal day, we get up with the sun, get a good dose of exercise then enjoy a stimulating day’s work at our standing desk. At the end of the workday, we return home to our family for some quality interaction before winding down and heading to bed in order to recharge and do it all again tomorrow. Yeah right! But we can all dream.
While we sleep our brain is pretty active, it turns out. It doesn’t just shut down and rest. Similar to athletic recovery, it is a purposeful and active process.
The 4 Stages of Sleep:
The body passes through the 4 stages of sleep about 4-6 times each night in repeating patterns approximately 1.5-2 hours long. These are known as sleep cycles. Each type of sleep is different and serves its specific purpose.
I: Quiet Sleep- This is the period of falling asleep where your brain is “idling” and your body is still able to move. Here, your temperature and blood pressure drop (thank you Melatonin) and your muscles relax. You know that feeling of falling that wakes you up with a jolt? This is that Stage.
II: Light Sleep- About half of the night is spent in this Stage where your temperature and blood pressure continue to drop. Here your heart rate and breathing slow. It has been found that this is the stage of sleep where your brain starts to process memories.
III: Deep Sleep- This is your “restorative” sleep. Hormones are released that trigger your body to repair tissues, strengthen your immune system, regulate your appetite and restore your energy. It is harder to wake someone in this state of sleep, but if you walk or talk in your sleep chances are you are in this Stage. As we age we spend less time here. When you are young 20% of your sleep is spent restoring the body. This helps to explain why the under 40-50 crowd can break their collarbones, take a few weeks off and get right back to riding.
IV: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep- This is where we dream. Here, our brain is active but our bodies are paralyzed. Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing all surge to levels as when we are awake. It is in this Stage where your mind is restored by clearing out irrelevant information and consolidating memories to assist with learning. About 15% of your adult sleep time is spent here, hopefully.
The Benefits of Sufficient Sleep:
Proper quality and quantity of sleep have shown improvements in:
- memory consolidation
- focus and mood
- cognitive performance
- judgement (after being awake for 19 hours drivers judgement and timing were similar to that of an intoxicated driver)
- speed, reaction time and accuracy
- retention of learned traits (skills)
- testosterone levels
- insulin sensitivity (your ability to use glucose efficiently)
“Improvements in sleep duration and quality appear to improve reaction time, accuracy, and endurance performance, while the effects on anaerobic power, strength, and sprint performance are less clear and remain an important area of further study. In addition, poor sleep may increase the risk of injury and illness, reducing training availability and undermining overall health.” -Watson, Andrew M. “Sleep and Athletic Performance.” Current Sports Medicine Reports (2017) American College of Sports Medicine
A good nights sleep can also decrease cortisol levels (THE stress hormone) as well as decrease risk of:
- accidents and injuries
- getting the common cold
- certain Cancers (The WHO has labelled night shift work as a probable carcinogen)
- cardiovascular disease (24% increase in heart attacks are seen the day after we lose an hour of sleep in the Spring due to Day Light Savings, habitual short sleep is linked with hypertension)
- Alzheimer’s Disease (deep sleep voids the body of the toxic accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques)
“One night of minor sleep loss (i.e., < 1 hour) may not be immediately problematic, but that more extreme sleep loss or accumulated sleep debt over time may prove to be detrimental for performance and recovery.” -Knufinke “Effects of Natural Between-Days Variation in Sleep on Elite Athletes’ Psychomotor Vigilance and Sport-Specific Measures of Performance, J Sports Sci Med, 2018.
How to Sleep for Optimal Performance:
Above all, we need to learn how to protect and enhance our sleep when it comes to improving performance. How much sleep do you need? Everyone is different but here are some recommendations from The National Sleep Foundation (a great resource.)
|Age Range||Recommended Hours of Sleep|
|Newborn||0-3 months old||14-17 hours|
|Infant||4-11 months old||12-15 hours|
|Toddler||1-2 years old||11-14 hours|
|Preschool||3-5 years old||10-13 hours|
|School-age||6-13 years old||9-11 hours|
|Teen||14-17 years old||8-10 hours|
|Young Adult||18-25 years old||7-9 hours|
|Adult||26-64 years old||7-9 hours|
|Older Adult||65 or more years old||7-8 hours|
Consistently 7-9 hours of sleep should keep the majority of us well rested and recovered. Sleep needs to be every athlete’s priority for strong gains in fitness and abilities. Making sure you plan your day with this in mind will go a long way.
“It should be noted that while protecting/increasing sleep opportunity can be beneficial for increasing sleep duration, “trying to sleep,” or exerting effort to sleep once in bed, may create sleep problems and result in decreased total sleep time.” –Broomfield NM, Espie CA. “Towards a valid, reliable measure of sleep effort.” J Sleep Res 2005: 14: 401–407.
Here are some tips to make sure you get a great night’s sleep:
- Optimize your fitness, time and stress management (a lifelong process and easier said than done most days)
- Make rest habitual with the same sleep schedule every day of the week (even weekends)
- Have a relaxing ritual before bed (read a book, write in a journal, practice meditation)
- Invest in a quality mattress, pillow and bedding (you ARE spending a third of your life there!)
- Get rid of disruptions (TV, phone, light)
- Optimize your bedroom temperature, cleanliness and aroma
- Disconnect from devices at least a half-hour or more before bedtime
- Watch what you eat and drink right before bed (alcohol and caffeine can disrupt sleep)
What about NAPS?
Good for your mind and body, naps are not just for kids and the elderly! A well-timed nap (20-30 min in the afternoon) has been shown to improve mood, alertness and performance. A good nap is like a mini-vacation and can rejuvenate you.
“While the majority of the sleep period should occur at night in order to best align with the normal circadian rhythm, daytime naps can increase overall sleep duration. They also provide a short-term general performance boost under conditions of sleep restriction. A caution is that longer naps (e.g., greater than 30 min) may lead to a period of lingering “sleep inertia,” or grogginess, and impaired performance after waking.”- Brooks A, Lack L. “A brief afternoon nap following nocturnal sleep restriction: which nap duration is most recuperative?” Sleep 2006: 29: 831–840.
Tools to Maximize Your Regeneration Time:
That which is measured improves. So how do we track how we sleep? Well, you are probably not surprised to know, there is an app for that! In fact, there are many apps for that. Test and retest some of the above strategies and figure out what works best for you.
Chances are your current watch can help. You may not need to even buy or subscribe to anything new.
Garmin, Apple Watch and Fit Bit all have some ability to track your sleep time, oxygen levels, sleep stage, HR and variability; depending on the model. You can even download that data to dedicated apps for further analysis.
There are some systems that you can wear on your finger or slide under your body if you would prefer not to wear a watch all night or if you take it off to charge during the evenings.
One system that has been getting a lot of press lately is the WHOOP system. Endorsed by World Champion XC MTB phenom Kate Courtney, the Whoop band is worn around your wrist 24/7, it even has a portable clip charging system that means you literally NEVER have to take it off. Whoop tracks your sleep, Heart Rate as well as Variability and gives you a score based on a percentage of how ready you are to train, among other metrics. A snazzy report is generated for you to review and compare from month to month and keep you on top of your sleep-recovery game.
This technology comes at a price (subscription-based) but the athletes I coach that are using it absolutely love it!
PROTECT your sleep as though your life depends on it! Invest in things that make YOUR sleep better, this may take some trial and error. As a physical therapist, my back and neck patients always ask me, “What is the perfect mattress or pillow?” I always tell them whichever is the most comfortable for them! We are all built differently and have different preferences, so you have to find what works for you. Be careful of claims that tout the “best pillow” or “world’s greatest mattress.” Look for supportive options that fit your anatomy and remember nothing lasts forever so get in the habit of replacing them (especially pillows) often.
Use technology to track and improve your sleep. Your recovery and health depend on it. Knowing when to hit that hard workout and when to turn around and take a nap could be one of your greatest secret weapons. Remember, it’s important to train smarter not harder!
Gross Sidebar: Did you know 10% of the weight of a two-year-old pillow may be made of dead dust mites and their feces. -From Ohio State University.
If you are interested in reading more in-depth, have a look at the scientific articles used in this post. These might actually help induce sleep for some. :}
Azboy O, Kaygisiz Z. Effects of sleep deprivation on cardiorespiratory functions of the runners and Optimizing sleep in elite athletes 271 volleyball players during rest and exercise. Acta Physiol Hung 2009: 96: 29–36.
Bird SP. Sleep, recovery, and athletic performance: a brief review and recommendations. Strength Cond J 2013: 35: 43–47.
Brooks A, Lack L. “A brief afternoon nap following nocturnal sleep restriction: which nap duration is most recuperative?” Sleep 2006: 29: 831–840.
Broomfield NM, Espie CA. “Towards a valid, reliable measure of sleep effort.” J Sleep Res 2005: 14: 401–407.
Fullagar, Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise, Sports Med 2015 Feb;45(2):161-86
Harrison Y, Horne JA. The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: a review. J Exp Psychol Gen Applied 2000: 6: 236–249.
Knufinke “Effects of Natural Between-Days Variation in Sleep on Elite Athletes’ Psychomotor Vigilance and Sport-Specific Measures of Performance, J Sports Sci Med, 2018.
Walker, MP, Stickgold, R. It’s practice, with sleep, that makes perfect: Implications of sleep-dependent learning and plasticity for skill performance. Clinics in Sports Medicine. 2005;24:301-317.
Watson, Andrew M. “Sleep and Athletic Performance.” Current Sports Medicine Reports (2017) American College of Sports Medicine
The Science of Sleep: Stages and Cycles Harvard Helpguide.
Healthy Sleep: Sleep, Learning and Memory. Harvard.edu