Sleep is something I struggle with and lately it’s been a tad worse than usual. I never really know why but it tends to ebb and flow with time. As I’m writing this post we’re getting our first winter wind storm (thankfully it’s rain) but it’s not looking good for tonight either! One thing athletes tend to be in denial about though is the importance of sleep in training. It’s when our bodies truly repair and restore themselves. But when you’re trying to squeeze your whole life in and training for a big event sleep can be the first to go. Plus training can throw other wrenches into your plan that interfere with your sleep. Someone who is really physically exerting themselves most days a week for months should ideally get more than 8 hours on average. So today I’m going to try to convince you that sleep should be a priority over many other things, especially for athletes, and give you some suggestions to get the most out of the hours you do get. And I’m going to use science to do it!
Why is sleep especially important for athletes
Sleep is arguably the most important tool in your recovery tool box (Samuels, 2008). We see that training athletes preform better in almost every measure when they get an extra 2 hours sleep each night in a week (Mah et al., 2011). We also know that sleep deprivation makes subsequent performance suffer (Oliver et al, 2009). Recovery is more than just performance though. It also lessens those oh so unpleasant feelings of fatigue. Recovery is also the biggest thing you can manage to prevent over use injuries from popping up when you’re in a training period. Studies also show that because of training and competition schedules athletes tend to get less sleep than the general population. We also know that training athletes need more sleep than average people for peak performance so never feel bad about making sure you’re getting enough. Keep in mind the average person NEEDS 7-9 hours a day and you should be getting more than that in training.
Rest and sleep really is when your body does the repair it needs to to keep your training on tack. Massage guns and foam rollers are great but sleep is really where it’s at. There are a few options to up your sleep time every day. The one we all think of is to go to bed earlier which should be easy but often isn’t when the time comes. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that most elite endurance athletes at least incorporate a rather long nap into the middle of their day. If you have that kind of life, well then good for you. Research shows that athletes have the most success extending the time they sleep in the morning to reach their sleep goals. I know for me that’s about the only way I’ll have any success.
So what do you do if you just aren’t or can’t get enough sleep.
- Sleep sober: When it’s already midnight and you have to be up at 6 am but you’re not tiered at all it seems really tempting to have a glass of wine (or three). This is a trap I used to fall into all the time but trust me it’s not worth it. I’ve learned that it’s actually not a lie that you’ll be more rested after fewer hours of higher quality sleep plus you won’t have the hangover. When I quit the nightly tipple I went from 7 hours or so a night to less than 6 and was WAY more rested for it. Avoid the urge to sip and sleep.
- Sleep separate: Now for some people this isn’t an option because of space and no one deserves to be kicked to the couch. But… if you have an extra bed consider sleeping there instead. If your partner, pets or kids ever disturb your sleep consider just going there to sleep instead of ending up there by morning. It’s not what we imagine happened to the prince and the princess at the end of the movie but I bet the castle way a happier place if everyone had a solid night’s sleep.
- Level up your bedding: You’ve got to have your bed be a place you want to go and lie down even if you can’t sleep. Give yourself a budget and make your bed a beautiful space. Things like high thread count cotton sheets, a beautiful bedspread and new non-lumpy pillows are a great place to start. If the spend is hard for you think about how being well rested will pay off in productivity. Then keep it nice and change your sheets often.
- Darken down: We don’t realize how light disturbs our sleep or prevents the onset in the first place. Don’t let yourself watch TV to go to bed but also invest in blackout curtains, cover all those LED lights on things we plug in and while were at it use your bed or bedroom if you can only for sleep and you know what (wink, wink).
- Pick your drift off thoughts: Make it a point to think about something boring and non-anxiety producing thoughts as you drift off. So not tomorrow’s to do list or that big project at work. Some of my go tos are planning next year’s race season or veggie garden, how I should organize the clutter in the corner or my next sewing project. So calming and pleasant overall if a little boring.
- Give yourself a bedtime: And a wind down time and a dark time… In other words at a certain time of night where your sleep comes first and you’re actively trying to get to bed. Then don’t deviate from that plan no matter how good the show you’re binge watching is.
- Watch the social stuff: Since research shows that the biggest non training factor affecting athlete’s sleep schedules is social contacts. No one is saying that you have to skip all the nights out but maybe the odd one or sticking to your early departure time is something you should do in order to put sleep first in training. (Nedelec et all 2018)
- What are you doing that’s not sleep: I’m going to argue that it’s not that important, at least when you’re training. In the late evenings I do like to just hang out and play silly games and I do like myself a slow morning. But… neither of those is really that important, sleep would be a better idea. Just keep explaining that to yourself over and over!
- Sleep through your taper: If you couldn’t make time in training, or even if you did, take the extra time in your taper to catch up on some ZZZ’s. In training for me it was to work early, then running then late bedtime after office work. In taper I could go to work late, work late and catch some extra shut eye and I totally recommend it!
Fun facts about sleep and sport
When I write these posts with peer reviewed information there’s always the odd thing that I think you might want to know but doesn’t really fit anywhere else. So this time here are those things!
- Individual athletes tend to get less sleep than team sport athletes even though they go to bed earlier (6.5 hours compared to 7). (Lastella et al, 2015)
- Reasearch shows that athletes that get less sleep in training are more likely to suffer illnesses suggesting that the combination of less sleep and more exercise leads to suppressed immune function. That might make it impossible to train at all! (Hausswirth et al., 2014)
Sleep is always important and as you suspected you need more of it when you are training heavily. Here’s the thing though if you’re actually getting less of it you’re not alone. Science proves that you should be prioritizing your sleep not only because you’ll be less cranky but it will improve your performance as well. What do you do to make sure you get the shut eye you need in training? Leave it in the comments below!
Read what I read
Hausswirth et al., Evidence of disturbed sleep and increased illness in overreached endurance athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2014, 46 (5), pp. 1036 – 1045
Lastella M, Roach GD, Halson SL, et al. Sleep/wake behaviours of elite athletes from individual and team sports. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(2):94–100.
Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, et al. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep. 2011;34(7):943–50.
Nedelec, M., Aloulou, A., Duforez, F. et al. The Variability of Sleep Among Elite Athletes. Sports Med – Open 4, 34 (2018).
Oliver SJ, Costa RJ, Laing SJ, et al. One night of sleep deprivation decreases treadmill endurance performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2009;107(2):155–61.
Samuels C. Sleep, recovery, and performance: the new frontier in high-performance athletics. Neurol Clin. 2008;26(1):169–80.