Ultimate Guide: Sleep and athletes

Whether you’ve just started out with a few laps of the park, have recently completed a marathon, or you love a bit of energetic contact sport, sleep is vital to your athletic performance.

Speak to any athlete, in any sport and they’ll tell you all about the different things it takes to excel. Many will say strength training is the Holy Grail whilst others say it’s about eating the right diet or practising as often as possible. These are of course all incredibly important, but sleep is at least as important and can often be overlooked.

Obviously sleep is vital for the health and wellbeing of us all, but for athletes it’s essential to obtain plenty of high quality sleep so that the mental and physical demands of their sport can be met. From Sunday league footie players right up to big time professionals, anyone who is serious about reaching the top of their game must pay close attention to their sleep.

Here we’ve put together the ultimate sleep guide for athletes to look at the importance of adequate rest as well as some top tips to help you get more of it.

How does sleep affect athletic performance?

Scientists and clinical researchers across the world have studied the relationship between sleep and athletic performance for many years. Recent findings published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine have indicated that sleep plays a crucial role in things like refined motor skills, hand-eye co-ordination and concentration. These skills are particularly important in the performance of goalkeepers and tennis players for example.

Lack of sleep has also been shown to have a negative effect on physical strength and muscle performance, particularly if poor quality sleep continues over time. Weightlifters and footballers particularly come to mind, as well as those who engage in anaerobic exercise like running and cycling.

Sleep helps avoid injuries

Although injuries are often directly caused by intense training itself, if an athlete has not had enough sleep the chances of an injury occurring in the first place also rises.

A study was carried out by the Journal of Paediatric Orthopaedics in 2014 which found that how many hours sleep an athlete had per night was a direct predictor of injury. Adolescent athletes who achieved less than eight hours sleep were, on average, 1.7 times more likely to sustain an injury that those who slept for longer.

Injuries are of course not only painful and unpleasant, but they can also mean weeks or even months of rehabilitation. Such a derailed training regimen is likely to result in poor performance further down the line, or an inability to take part in competitions.

Sleep aids recovery

Sleep also plays a vital role in helping athletes build up mental strength as well as to physically recover from the exertion required for training and competitive events. It has been found that hormones secreted by the brain during sleep are essential for the physiological restoration of an athlete’s body. Melatonin also triggers other enzymes which serve to reduce inflammation, whilst other hormones that enter the bloodstream during deep sleep help to oxidise fats, build bone and repair tired muscles.

Sleep is also said to provide the brain with a chance to ‘sort through’ everything it has learned during the day, and permanently forges new connections between neurons. Good quality sleep boosts memory which helps to cement things like effective technique, complex team strategy and new athletic skills gained whilst training. Essentially, an athlete’s brain is still in the game even during sleeping hours.

What are the common sleep problems athletes can face?

So we know that regular, high quality sleep can give athletes a psychological and physical advantage but like everyone else sleep disorders can strike at any time. There’s the very common problems like insomnia and snoring, but there are further issues athletes may face like worries over competitions or travelling. Gruelling training schedules may also play a part, for example very early starts or late nights. Importantly, it’s not just about getting the hours in, but making sure that the quality of sleep an athlete requires is achieved.

UK Olympic athletes in 2012 took this one step further by wearing sleep watches designed for measuring the quality and amount of sleep they managed each night. The results indicated that athletes were in bed for an average of 8.5 hours and were asleep for 7 of them, meaning an 81% sleep efficiency rating. Non-athlete peers spent half an hour less in bed, but slept for 15 minutes longer, giving an 89% sleep efficiency rating. So it would seem that being an athlete doesn’t necessarily mean a better ability to rest.

How can athletes make sleep a priority?

Achieving success at your chosen sport takes training and practice, but did you know you can also train yourself for better sleep?

There are several things athletes specifically can do to improve their sleep quality, including optimising your sleep environment and sticking to a good sleep routine. Just a few simple steps can go a long way to helping athletes stay healthy and strong so they can really excel.

Athletes may find these top tips useful:

  • Avoid late-night workouts, especially cardio activities and weightlifting. When you work out, your body releases cortisol (the human stress hormone), which wakes you up and stops you feeling sleepy. This will make it harder to fall asleep and nodding off will take much longer.
  • Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine before bed. Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the throat which can make snoring and sleep apnea worse. Caffeine is a stimulant so is likely to trigger insomnia, making you tired the next day.
  • Make sure you stay hydrated with plenty of water but don’t overdo it. Getting up several times in the night to use the loo is not conducive to restful sleep!
  • Have a brief daytime nap of around 20 to 30 minutes. A quick forty winks can help you recover from a particularly early training session or after a poor night’s sleep previously. Try not to sleep too late in the afternoon or for too long though, as you may then not feel tired at bed time, so starting a vicious cycle.
  • Put down the screens. Smartphones, tablets and TV screens emit blue light, which keeps us awake by suppressing melatonin levels in the brain that make us sleepy. Try a warm bath or reading a book instead, and keep your bedroom quiet and dark.

Finally, don’t forget to check your bedding!

In order to sleep well, your bed should be clean, cosy and comfy. Buying a new mattress that adequately supports weary muscles can also go a long way to improving your sleep, as can a comfortable supportive pillow.

The Kally Sports Recovery Pillow is specially designed to take pressure off your muscles and joints, so you get the sleep you need for top performance. Its hollowfibre interior moulds to your body shape and can be rolled up for easy storage. Additionally, Kally Sleep offers a range of adjustable pillows and side sleeper pillows too. Premium quality and hypoallergenic, they’re soft and breathable allowing your body to repair itself for the new day of training ahead.

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