In order to facilitate optimal functioning, it is important that athletes and beginner trainees take on board the importance of sleep hygiene, and it’s impact on training and performance.
Educating athletes on the importance of sleep should ideally be implimented by teachers of strength and conditioning as a matter of course, in order to optimise their recovery, promote consistent sleep routines, and appropriate sleep duration.
The importance of sleep
Sleep is an criminally overlooked factor in achieving peak athletic performance. There are various reasons for this, not least of which is that it is considered non- productive down time. Some athletes and especially young gym trainees, believe if they’re not training then they’re not gaining.
Trainees often underestimate the importance of sleep and curtail it, unaware of the negative implications, because other activities seem much more important.
Despite a growing knowledge base that adequate sleep, like adequate nutrition and physical activity, is vital to our well-being, people tend to be sleeping less than ever.
The nature of today’s hectic world is no doubt mostly responsible. It encourages or demands longer work hours, and gives round the clock access to entertainment and other distractions. In order to get more of this many people foolishly reduce their sleeping hours.
But research shows that in so doing, they may be compromising a good number of the functions that are carried out by the body during sleep. These are vital processes which maintain health and optimise physical and mental functioning.
Quality sleep has been shown to maximise problem solving skills and enhance memory. Poor sleep however, has been observed to impair these abilities.
Longer sleep has been shown to improve many aspects of athletic performance also. Obtaining at least eight hours of sleep can additionally improve the body’s immune function .
Sleep is not training, or even visibly productive but the physical adaptations which occur as a result of training happen during sleep, and only during sleep.
The modern elite athlete is of course cognisant of the importance of physical conditioning, and sound nutrition. Indeed whilst these factors are critical in maintaining peak athletic performance, sleep plays an equally if not more important role. In fact the importance of sleep maybe such, that quality and quantity of sleep obtained by elite athletes, can actually be the difference between them acheiving victory or defeat.
Understanding the sleep cycle
The functions of sleep are not all totally understood. The process of sleep occurs in cycles, the sleep cycle consists of two recurring phases: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-REM or non-rapid eye movement). Both phases are important and regulate a number of different functions in our bodies.
NREM sleep comprises 75–80% of total sleep duration. Many of the health benefits of sleep take place during this phase – tissue growth and repair occurs, energy restoration and hormones that are essential for growth and development are released.
REM sleep typically comprises 20–25% of total sleep duration. This is the stage of sleep during which we dream. It is essential to our minds for processing and consolidating emotions, memories and reconciling stress. Many of its functions are probably unknown. It is thought to be vital for learning, stimulating the brain regions used in learning, and developing new skills. Additionally it is known to be essential for emotional well being.
If the REM and NREM cycles are continually disrupted for example due to snoring, breathing problems or continual awakening, then the recuperative and restorative powers of sleep are curtailed, creating adverse effects on our health and well being, both short and long term.
The effects of Sleep deprivation
A commonly held belief is that people can learn to adapt to little sleep ( less than six hours a night) with no apparent negative effects. Research suggests, however, that this is not the case, and that adults need at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night to be fully recuperated, athletes probably more.
The consequences of sleep deprivation or curtailed sleep are profound. Physical changes include levels of the stress hormone cortisol increasing, and brain function being compromised. Memory repair and consolidation are adversely effected, as is the release of beneficial hormones.
Sleep deprivation also decreases the production of glycogen and carbohydrates stored for use during physical activity. It then increases fatigue, and reduces energy and focus. It is likely that it also inhibits recovery processes.
Inadequate sleep duration is associated with a drastically increased risk of weight gain and obesity. Additionally sleeping less than seven hours per night is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause pre-diabetes in as little as six days.
Additionally poor sleep quality is often implicated in depression, particularly for those with a sleeping disorder. Lack of sleep also impacts on the body’s inflammatory responses, for example it is strongly linked to inflammatory bowel disease and can increase the risk of its recurrence.
Researchers also believe that inadequate sleep adversely affects our ability to recognise social cues and process emotional information.
Optimising sleep for athletic performance
Sleep is the most important aspect of training recovery since this is when the adaptive processes occur. In order to optimise training adaptation and health, most trainees will require a minimum of six to eight hours of quality sleep per night.
Improving sleep quality
Sleep quality can be improved by a number of means. Ideally you should follow natural circadian rhythms by retiring to bed by 10pm to 11pm latest and arising during daylight hours. Additionally as far as possible you should retire and arise at the same time each day.
White and blue light emissions should be avoided just prior to bedtime, as these will inhibit your ability to fall asleep quickly. The Pineal gland in the brain which regulates circadian rhythms, requires a signal of reduced light intensity and increasing darkness, to induce melatonin secretion, in order to promote sleep.
As far as possible you should sleep in complete darkness, and ensure electrical and light emitting devices are switched off or removed. You should ideally wake naturally without the sleep disturbing effect of an alarm.
Stress also hinders deep sleep, prevents people from drifting off to sleep and is often the root cause of insomnia. Shut off your negative internal dialogue, do what you can to resolve a problem, and then let it go. If you focus on the negative then that is what you will unconsciously manifest in your life. Don’t dwell on the past, or what could go wrong in the future, instead try to stay in the present.
Meditation is also effective as it improves sleep, firstly by reducing stress. Secondly, meditation puts you in a similar state to when you are asleep, thus makes the process of falling asleep much smoother. Learn to meditate.
Additionally you should avoid strenuous exercise too close to bedtime, especially that which ramps up your metabolism post exercise, as this will also inhibit your ability to fall asleep quickly. “Overtraining syndrome ” itself will inhibit sleep significantly, and is one of its less desirable effects.
Magnesium supplimentation helps with muscle relaxation and testosterone production, and it will improve sleep quality also. It is probably best ingested in its chelated form, or as magnesium citrate, but it can also be absorbed through the skin, for example as magnesium sulphate (epsom salts).
The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. Along with sound nutrition and exercise, quality sleep of appropriate duration, is one of the most important factors in maintaining good health. You simply cannot achieve optimal health or physical performance without ensuring quality sleep.
1. The Impact of Daily Sleep Duration on Health: A Review of the Literature
2. Sleep, recovery, and metaregulation: explaining the benefits of sleep