Athletic performance can be partially weighted on how athletes recover after activity. An important part of recovery for any athlete is sleep.

Though sleep will sometimes occur several hours after activity has been completed, it is an important component of improving an athlete’s recovery, focus, reaction time, and diminish stress.

While proper nutrition, stretching, conditioning, and recovery are all important factors in contributing to sustaining athletic performance, a solid sleep schedule can be equally beneficial.

Understanding how the quantity and quality of sleep can affect you is the first step in improving your athletic performance!

The Steps to Sleep

There are two stages of sleep, rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM) and non-REM sleep. As your body transitions from being awake to falling asleep, heart rate, breathing, and eye movement will begin to slow down.

Muscles will begin to relax from the day’s activities, and the brain can begin to rest and reload for the next day. During these stages of non-REM sleep, the body is preparing to transition from light to deep sleep.

About 90 minutes after falling asleep (non-REM stage), REM sleep occurs. This stage of sleep is when eye movement, breathing, and heart rate are all increased, and muscles are relaxed to a point of near paralysis.

Though this may seem alarming, this is the point of deep sleep, and the point where you are most likely to experience dreams. REM, or deep sleep, can help reduce stress, improve memory and brain function.

As the brain rests during sleep, this rest can help improve an athlete’s mental health, which can be translated to achieving a performance less bogged down by mental or physical fatigue.

Your Body Clock

To understand how to manage a proper sleep schedule, it is important to understand your body’s sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm acts as your body’s internal clock, managing your sleep and wake cycle.

Within 24 hours, it controls wakefulness and sleepiness. This is controlled by an area of the brain that is very reactive to light accommodation. Therefore, some individuals will feel tired in the early afternoon or late at night.

Everyone’s circadian rhythms are different, so it’s important to recognize times of sleepiness and wakefulness to maintain a proper balance of your body clock when possible.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

The golden rule for sleep is to usually shoot for at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night to feel well-rested and energized for the day ahead of you.

Though this may be the norm for more novice athletes, more elite athletes may need an hour or two more to supplement their workload during activity.

However, in elite athletes, this may not always be possible due to their strict training schedules, travel and time zone changes.

The Importance of Sleep for Pro Athletes

Along with nutrition and exercise, sleep is a very important factor in improving athletic performance. During sleep, the brain is resting from the previous day’s events and effectively preparing for the next day’s activities.

Not only does sleep help reduce stress and improve mental health, but it is also greatly involved in repairing heart and blood vessels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

As rest is an important aspect of any athlete’s routine, it is important to understand how the duration and quality of sleep are vital for their recovery.

Quality AND Quantity

Adequate and proper duration of sleep go hand in hand in sustaining and improving athletic performance. Going to bed and falling asleep are two very different concepts.

You may go to bed at 11 pm, but not fall asleep until 1 or 2 am. If you must wake up at 6 am, you have already lost 1 to 2 hours of sleep. If this kind of sleep schedule persists, sleep deficiency, or, sleep deprivation, can develop.

Sleep deprivation occurs when you don’t get enough sleep, you sleep out of sync with your body’s circadian rhythm, or poor quality of sleep is caused by internal or external factors.

How Can Sleep Be Affected?

Several factors can have negative effects on sleep duration and quality. These include:

  • Stress- worrying about upcoming events, daily life and other stressors can keep you up at night and contribute to sleep deficiency and affect athletic performance
  • Blue Light exposure- from phones or laptop screens. Blue light can suppress the production of melatonin-a hormone that regulates sleep.
  • Jet lag- traveling within different time zones can disrupt circadian rhythms
  • Caffeine or alcohol intake- both cause loss of sleep or reduced REM cycle

Lack of Sleep Affects Your Athlete Performance

Since elite athletes may not be able to reach the optimal 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, they may develop sleep deficiency which can cause negative health effects to the mind and body.

Inadequate sleep can cause impaired brain function and response which can in turn reduce reaction time, judgment, and decision time in athletics. Because of these cognitive effects, performance suffers greatly not only in athletics but in nutrition.

As individuals become sleep deprived, they will be more likely to crave and choose less healthy diet options. In doing so, athletes can gain more unwanted weight during competitive seasons and be detrimental to their performance.

In terms of athletic performance, the effects of lack of sleep include:

  • Reduced motivation
  • Poor concentration, less focused
  • Increased fatigue
  • Low energy
  • Delayed reaction or decision making

What You Can Do

As athletes are subject to different conditioning and training schedules, quality and quantity of sleep can often be compromised.

The best plans for achieving optimum sleep involve:

  • Try to only go to bed when you are tired, do not try to force yourself to sleep.
  • Incorporate different tricks to help relax before sleep (reading, warm bath, warm tea, listening to music, etc.)
  • Get to bed and wake up at the same times every day
  • Avoid caffeine well before you plan to sleep
  • Avoid blue light (from phone and laptop screens) at least two hours before you plan to go to bed

How Breathing Training Can Improve Your Sleep

Your body’s ability to breathe and intake oxygen efficiently is key to feeling well rested. In cases where an athlete as poor sleeping habits, or a more serious condition such as sleep apnea, partial blocking of the airways can lead to waking up feeling fatigued or nauseous.

Respiratory muscle training has been shown to yield improvements in those with breathing problems during sleep. For athletes, the benefits of using an assistive device, such as the Airofit, can have three main benefits.

These include strengthening the muscles that allow you to breathe better during sleep, training you to take longer, deeper breaths before sleep, which can relax you before going to bed, and the main benefit - improving your athletic performance!

You Need Rest to Be the Best

Sleep plays a very important role in the recovery of the body after physical activity.

While physical training and exercise are often prioritized to achieve peak performance, proper sleep schedules for athletes should be incorporated and made just as vital as physical fitness.

By introducing helpful techniques and avoiding factors that affect sleep, athletes can translate proper rest into improved performance.