Sleep Strategies for Athletic Performance and Recovery!
“Sleep is the foundation of a good performance.” – Charest
Athletes of all levels are in continuous pursuit of improvement and their best performance. They may look to nutrition, supplements, new gear or a complete training program overhaul. While these tweaks can prove to be useful, the often most elusive, forgotten, yet effective, performance enhancer is sleep. Sleep strategies for athletic performance and recovery might be the piece your missing!
Sleep affects all areas of life, including mental health and productivity, and it also has a profound influence on reaction time, ability to focus, stress regulation, memory and learning, and injury risk1. Lack of sleep also affects the immune system and can increase an athlete’s susceptibility to illness reducing their ability to recover quickly from training. Sleep is considered as important as physical conditioning, mental preparation, hydration and nutrition during a training cycle as well as when preparing for competitions.
“Sleep is the foundation of a good performance. You cannot train and have a good performance if you do not have the basic recovery you get from sleep,” says Dr. Jonathan Charest, director of athlete services at the Centre of Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary. “One of the metaphors I use with athletes I work with is that sleep is like a dishwasher that you start in the evening – it washes away all the toxins you accumulate during the day while you’re sleeping so you wake up fresh, and clean, and you can take on your day, training and competition.”
Better Sleep = Improved Performance
Multiple studies show the importance and significant effects that quality sleep has on athletic performance. For example, a Stanford University study of a men’s basketball team found that players who extended their sleep to 10 hours each night experienced multiple benefits. Those who slept longer clocked faster sprints and improved their free throw and three pointer shooting by at least 9 per cent. Off the court, these players also experienced improved physical and mental wellbeing2.
A study in swimmers showed that athletes who slept 10 hours improved their reaction times off diving blocks, turn times and kick strokes. The male and female athletes in the study also reported improved mood and decreased daytime fatigue. Additionally, a study of male and female varsity tennis players showed that athletes who slept at least nine hours each night improved their serve accuracy from about 36 per cent to almost 42 per cent2.
How Much Sleep is Enough?
The ideal amount of sleep is dependent on the individual, but an athlete’s level of activity and competition also play a factor in how much sleep a person needs. For example, elite athletes should sleep at least nine hours each night and place as much emphasis on sleep as physical and mental training and diet. Athletes who exercise moderately may need between seven or eight hours7 of nightly sleep.
“Between seven and nine hours is the target” – Charest
While the optimal amount of sleep varies for each person, the first step in maximizing sleep time is determining what kind of sleeper you are, Charest says. “Between seven and nine hours is the target” for athletes, but “are you a night owl, early bird or in between? Knowing your type helps with scheduling awareness.” For example, “rowing and swimming are morning-type sports while basketball and baseball are evening-type sports.” If you need to get up at 6:00 A.M. for practice or competition, a good bedtime could be 10:00 P.M. But if you don’t have to get up until 9:00 A.M., perhaps you can go to bed at midnight and still get an adequate amount of sleep.
What about naps? Short durations of sleep during the day can be an effective way to catch up on sleep or simply relax the mind. But naps need to be timed right to have the biggest positive impact. For example, short naps between five and 30 minutes are great for restoring alertness and reducing fatigue. The best nap window is between 1:00 P.M. and 3:00 P.M4. Extended or additional sleep is recommended before travel, competitions and during illness or injury.
Side Effects of Poor Sleep
Regular and adequate amounts of sleep allow athletes to recover from workouts and, in the event of injury, helps the body recover more quickly and prevent future injuries. Sleep is critical for the physiological, biochemical and cognitive restoration of the body for athletes in every sport. Surprisingly, studies show that even low levels of fatigue can impair reaction times as much or more than being legally drunk1. This likeness of sleep deprivation to alcohol intoxication clearly shows the importance of consistent and sound sleep for performance.
Chronic sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality can result in several negative effects on the body and mind. Those who are fatigued may be at higher risk of making poor decisions, taking risks, feeling irritable and facing anxiety and depression. Some physical consequences of poor sleep include type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and stroke.2
On the field of play, sleep deprivation can result in decreased sport specific ability and accuracy, difficulty learning and making decisions, and higher risk of injury and illness. “You cannot replace sleep with coffee or energy drinks,” Charest says. “If you’re sleep deprived, you may want to change or manage your next day. If you have demanding and high intensity training, you may want to chat with your coach about modifying training so you can still practice, but not expose yourself to injury.”
How to Improve Sleep Duration and Quality
So, now that we know that sleep plays a huge role in athletic performance and overall wellbeing, we can take steps to ensure that we bank some valuable z’s. Athletes can create a personalized sleep hygiene routine to optimize their slumber. The Sleep Foundation outlines some impactful components that can help you get a better sleep.2
- create a comfortable sleep environment that is cool, dark and quiet (between 17oC and 19oC is optimal)
- avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed to minimize the chance of interrupted sleep, that means taking ALTRD STATE or BURN CYCLE early to midafternoon if you can!
- avoid screen time in the hours before bedtime, including TV, cell phone and computers (start with no screens 30 minutes before bedtime and try to gradually increase to an hour)
- create a wind-down routine that could include reading or meditating to facilitate relaxation
- go to bed and wake up at the same time to get your body onto a regular sleep schedule
Setting up a restful sleep is “all about routine,” Charest says. He also enforces “If you have trouble falling asleep, get help. It’s a serious matter!”
“Only go to bed when sleepy. You do not sit at the table waiting to get hungry, therefore you shouldn’t go to bed and wait to be sleepy” – charest
After you’ve planned your sleep schedule, next is to make sure that you schedule workouts and training consistently in your daily routine! Exercise has a three-fold effect on sleep in that it reduces the onset of sleep, helping you relax and drift-off faster while improving pain tolerance and reducing some effects of depression. Essentially, research by Singh, Clements and Fiatrone found that subjects who weight-trained three times a week experienced fewer depression symptoms and had an overall improvement in sleep quality and quality of life.5 Just be mindful not to overtrain because that may impact sleep quality.
Lastly, keep your macros and micros in check – studies by St-Onge, Mikik and Pietroloungo showed significant effects of macronutrient intake on sleep quality, and especially an improvement in quality with carbohydrate-centered diets.6 Research by the Cambridge University Press has also associated higher quality sleep with sufficient intake of micronutrients such as Iron (Fe), Zinc (Zn) and Magnesium (Mg). Adequate diets should help you with this, but if you are training intensly you’ll need more nutrients replenished more often. Using the right, informed choice supplements is key to supporting rest and recovery. HULK Mass Gainer is not just for bodybuilders, it features full servings of fruits and vegetables along with carbohydrates (85g) and protein (25g). That full serving of fruits and vegetables provides Zinc, Magnesium and Iron, making it a perfect addition to aid your sleep, performance and recovery.
Keep your rest a top priority by planning your attack to train right, eat right and supplement right. BE GREAT.
- Fatigue Science. (2021, June 9). 5 areas sleep has the greatest impact on athletic performance. Fatigue Science. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.fatiguescience.com/blog/5-ways-sleep-impacts-peak-athletic-performance/.
- Fry, A. (2021, June 24). How sleep affects athletic performance. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-activity/athletic-performance-and-sleep.
- Ji, X., Grandner, M. A., & Liu, J. (2016). The relationship between micronutrient status and sleep patterns: a systematic review. Public Health Nutrition, 20(4), 687–701. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1368980016002603
- Pacheco, D. (2020, October 9). Does napping impact sleep at night? Sleep Foundation. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/does-napping-impact-sleep-at-night.
- Singh, N. A., Clements, K. M., & Fiatarone Singh, M. A. (2001). The efficacy of exercise as a long-term antidepressant in elderly subjects: A randomized, controlled trial. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 56(8), M497–M504. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/56.8.M497
- St-Onge, M. P., Mikic, A., & Pietrolungo, C. E. (2016). Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Advances in Nutrition, 7(5), 938–949. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.116.012336
- Waterhouse J, Atkinson G, Edwards B, Reilly T. The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation. J Sports Sci. 2007 Dec;25(14):1557-66. doi: 10.1080/02640410701244983. PMID: 17852691.
Kate Ayers – author
Kate grew up on a beef and cash crop farm in Simcoe County, Ont. She completed a degree in agricultural science at the University of Guelph while competing in athletics internationally. Kate combined her passions for agriculture, sport and storytelling by becoming a freelance writer. Now in Victoria, she’s an Athletics Canada 1500m runner training for the Olympics.