Sleep and Athletic Performance

Tanya Jones Brain health, Performance, Running Performance, Sleep Leave a Comment

How are you sleeping these days? I find that I go through stages where I sleep well for a while and then not so well at other times. When I was younger it didn’t seem to impact me as much but now, I am all too aware of my age and that if I sleep poorly, my athletic performance suffers.

Sleep is an essential component of our health and well-being. There are significant impacts on physical development, emotional regulation, cognitive performance, and quality of life when we don’t sleep well. Sleep is also an integral part of the recovery and adaptive process between training sessions. Studies have shown that an increase in sleep duration and quality is associated with improved performance and competitive success. Adequate sleep may reduce the risk of both injury and illness in athletes, increasing performance through an increased ability to participate in scheduled training.

We’ve all heard that sleep is important for maintaining optimum health but for athletes, sleep becomes a significant component for success. In regard to performance, sleep plays a role in:

  • Reaction times and motor function
  • Focus and motivation
  • Stress and hormone regulation
  • Muscle repair and recovery
  • Memory and learning
  • Injury risk and illness

Some other roles of sleep are to help regulate your metabolism, reduce inflammation, modulate your immune system and aid in balancing your hormones. Sleep is also needed to restore appetite hormones to their normal levels, which can influence your cravings throughout the day!

Despite all the positive reasons to treat your sleep with as much dedication and care as you do your training, most of us fall short on the recommended amount of sleep, threatening both our desired performance and health. There are a number of hurdles that get in the way of obtaining proper sleep, such as training and competition schedules, travel, stress, work and family schedules, and overtraining. And to top it off, athletes have been found to demonstrate poor self-assessment of their sleep duration and quality.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults require between 7 and 9 h of sleep for optimal performance and health. It has been suggested that athletes may require more sleep to allow for adequate recovery and adaptation between training sessions, perhaps requiring closer to 9 or 10 h of sleep.

So Why Aren’t We Sleeping?

To improve overall athletic performance, we should look a what steps we can take to improve our sleep. But there are several hurdles that get in the way of a good quality sleep.

  • We seem to idealize the ability to function with minimal sleep.
  • Training volume and work schedules can push aside the boundaries of required sleep.
  • Competition nerves can impact sleep as well as mood, stress, and anxiety from the experience.
  • Travel for competition can interfere with performance due to changes in sleep schedules and a disruption in natural circadian rhythms.
  • Travel induced anxiety, stress, and jet lag.

How Does Sleep Impact Performance?

Everyone responds differently to lack of or poor-quality sleep but, one constant for endurance athletes seems to be an increase in rate of perceived efforts inhibiting performance. Some evidence also indicates a reduction in pre-exercise muscle glycogen availability, that can limit high intensity efforts.

As I discussed in my last post, Nutrition, Cognitive Sports Training and Performance, cognitive sports training can also play a role in sports performance enhancement. Cognitive training tasks are used to improve psychological factors such as mindset, self-efficacy, self confidence, motivation, and mental toughness. Cognitive sports training can also be used to enhance skill development and execution, resulting in improved technical proficiency within your sport. This increase will allow you to adapt to changing scenarios and ultimately perform to your best capability no matter what you are faced with. Therefore, the capacity to learn is essential to athletic development and performance, and sleep is critical for memory consolidation. Any reduction in cognitive performance may be the most important effect of impaired sleep on athletic performance in competition, particularly in athletic events with large elements of quick decision-making.

What is the Relationship between Sleep and Injury and Illness?

Your ability to train consistently and hit the required effort targets is a primary determinant to reaching your athletic goals. One of the biggest hurdles to maintaining that consistency is injury and illnesses. A decrease in sleep hours or quality is associated with an increased risk of injury. This potentially can be from limited reaction time and impaired judgment. I know I’ve made some questionable training decisions when tired that could have led to injury. We recover and repair our bodies while we are sleeping as well. Without enough sleep, you will be limiting time for muscle repair and central nervous system support. Limited sleep has been shown to be immunosuppressive and increases susceptibility to upper respiratory infections. After putting in all the hard work into training and hitting your targets, doesn’t it make sense to allow your body to recover and rebuild so you can adapt, get stronger mentally and physically and be able to perform at your desired level?

What Steps Can We Take to Get More Sleep?

Given the significant implications for performance, health, and general well-being, it’s important to establish a good sleep hygiene routine and monitor how your new habits are supporting you. I suggest you keep a sleep journal and track alertness, rate of perceived effort, injuries, illness, etc.

Establish a Bedtime Routine

  • Aim for a routine that will allow you to do the same things every night before bed. This will help to establish the habit.
  • Eat your last meal at least 2 hours before bed. Large meals or snacks too soon to laying down can impair your sleep as your body is focused on digestion and not sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine within four to six hours of bedtime. If you’re sensitive to stimulants, you may need to eat your dark chocolate at lunch instead of after dinner.
  • Limit your sugar. Ideally you should be eating your fast acting carbohydrates around your workouts already, but as it also acts as a stimulant, it will impair your sleep. It’s also a good idea to limit sugar for the overall health benefits.
  • When you feel sleepy, go to bed. Your body is telling you something so don’t try to push through it.
  • Try your best to keep a regular sleep-wake cycle. Go to bed at the same time every day and get up at the same time. This is fantastic for regulating your circadian rhythm.

Set an Optimal Sleep Environment

  • Keep your room dark, cool, and quiet; it’s the best environment for producing Melatonin (your sleep hormone).
  • Sleep naked or in breathable fabrics. Most people sleep best in a cool room paired with bedding and sleepwear that warm the skin but does not make you sweat. Warm skin helps a person’s core body temperature decrease at night by releasing heat through dilated blood vessels. A lower core body temperature is necessary for better sleep.
  • Keep your bedroom for sleep and sex only. Stop bringing work or food into your bed. You want to establish the habit of your bedroom being a place for sleep and intimacy.
  • Invest in a good quality mattress to provide proper support and alignment for your body.

Manage Stress

Stress and sleep go hand in hand. If you are stressed, you won’t sleep well. But if you don’t sleep well, it can lead to higher stress levels. We all have stressors, so it is important to focus on managing that stress.

  • Prepare your mind and body for sleep with light stretching, yoga, deep breathing or meditation.
  • Relax your body with a hot Epsom salts bath.
  • Use exercise for stress management but try not to exercise within 2 hours of bedtime. This can be even longer for high intensity sessions.

Ditch Your Electronics

  • Stay away from all electronics at least one hour before bed. The blue light emitted causes disruption to your melatonin production (your sleep hormone). Plus, these things are stimulants and it is way too easy to fall down a Tic Tok or some other attention getter, ‘rabbit hole’ and lose precious sleep time (this is my bad habit).
  • Aim to keep all electronic devices out of your bedroom.
  • If you do have your phone in your room, make sure your notifications are turned off.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night, avoid looking at your phone. First of all, the light will disrupt your sleep more and you will likely see there are emails, and this can kickstart your brain and prevent you from falling back asleep.

Try Some Herbal Remedies

  • Add some essential oils to your diffuser. Try using calming oils like Lavender, Rose or Ylang Ylang.
  • Herbal teas like Tulsi, Chamomile and Valerian help to relax the nervous system. Consume with enough time to get in one last bathroom stop before bed.
  • California Poppy, Lemon Balm, Passionflower are other supplements that help to relax the nervous system. Always read the labels to check for contraindications first or talk to your health professional.  

Nourish Your Body for Sleep

You’ve already done your daily exercise, had your last meal 2 hours before bed and put away your electronics. Now you can add a final drink of tart cherry and magnesium bisglycinate to your routine.

  • Drink tart cherry juice. Just 1/2 a cup (or 2 Tbsp of concentrate) will help as it contains the amino acid called, L-Tryptophan, that increases your body’s production of melatonin.
  • Tart cherry juice also contains anthocyanins, which are anti-inflammatory compounds that may help recovery and performance.
  • Waking in the middle of the night may be from low blood sugar, tart cherry juice before bed can keep this stable while supporting recovery.
  • Magnesium bisglycinate or citrate helps to relax muscles and support your nervous system. 
  • Avoid magnesium oxide, which is a stool softener and probably much less helpful for your sleep.

Sweet dreams!

Tanya R.H.N.

Sports Holistic Nutritionist

Strength and Conditioning Coach

Multisport Coach

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