From Cryotherapy to absurd caloric intake, professional athletes such as Tom Brady and Michael Phelps always seem to be touting their new and often expensive methods to increase performance and extend their prime. To be fair, Brady is still performing phenomenally at age forty-one, but how much of that can we really attribute to his vegan, anti-inflammatory alkaline diet? More and more research is pointing to the idea that the best method to increase performance is actually much simpler: improved sleep.
Though it may seem easy enough, two problems get in the way: athletes are notoriously bad at measuring their sleep efficacy, and athletics just make it hard to get a good night’s rest. That’s why we put together some tips you can use to improve your performance through rest, but first we’ll cover how these ideas work on a deeper level.
No matter how much time you spend lifting weights, counting carbs, or researching on bodybuilder.com, you won’t see much in terms of results without proper rest. This is because while exercise tears down muscle, sleep rebuilds it. This process is especially vital for athletes who are trying to build muscle mass.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are five stages, and the deepest and most restorative stages do not occur until later in the night at phases three and four. When the body isn’t permitted to properly cycle through, muscle repair and hormone production can be cut short, meaning all those hours at practice or in the gym could potentially be wasted.
Muscle repair occurs in a process called protein synthesis, which relies on a combination of diet, exercise, and sleep to build muscle. When athletes focus on protein and exercise but neglect their rest, they are sabotaging their own efforts and will likely experience the wrong types of gains, as their calories are being converted to fat rather than being used to build and restore muscle.
Imperative to protein synthesis is steady hormone production which balances a variety of functions performed by the endocrine system. Studies show that Human Growth Hormone (HGH) production spikes soon after you fall asleep, boosting protein production, fat utilization, and insulin production, according to a study conducted by Brunel University.
While rest is essential for repairing and preparing the body for exercise, it plays just as large a role in maximizing an athlete’s potential. Affecting both mental and physical elements of competition and performance, proper rest has the power to significantly damage or improve an athlete’s chances at success.
According to The Science of Sleep by Fatigue Science, athletes with insufficient sleep may still be able to compete, but their perception of exertion and endurance will be distorted. These athletes will tire more quickly and their time operating at full-capacity will be significantly shorter when compared to athletes with adequate sleep. Additionally, motivation is adversely affected meaning even if the athlete had the ability to compete at full-capacity, they may lack the necessary motivation to do so.
In 2011, Stanford University conducted a study on male collegiate basketball players monitoring the relationship between sleep schedules and performance. After a period of two weeks where basketball players were instructed to sleep an average of ten hours per night, making up for lost shuteye with day-time naps, the basketball players were found to have improved in a variety of areas including sprint strength. On average the players improved by an astounding average of almost one second on their 282-foot sprints.
The same basketball players improved in shooting accuracy, demonstrating an increase of 9 percent in free throws, and 9.3 percent in three-point shots. Cheri Mah, who conducted the study at Stanford University attributed this improvement in part to decreased daytime sleepiness, saying sleep is an “unrecognized, but likely critical factor in reaching peak performance.”
According to a 1988 study called Catastrophes, sleep, and public-policy: Consensus Report, a considerable amount of tragedies including Chernobyl and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, were partially caused by sleep deprivation. So it’s no surprise that a sleep deficit contributes largely to human error, and in terms of athletics, the statistics reflect that assumption. A study conducted by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute indicates that after only one night of reduced sleep, psychomotor function is significantly decreased in a variety of measures including reaction time and decision making.
A study conducted by Andrew Watson M.D. shows that adequate sleep may reduce the risk of injury or general illness in athletes, as related to reaction time and cognitive performance. The study goes on to reveal that this improved health has the power to directly affect success, as more participation in practice and drills generally lead to improved performance.
When athletes get the recommended amount of sleep they
Despite the overwhelming benefits, most athletes do not sleep enough and thus expose themselves to more risk of injury through illness, fatigue, and decreased decision-making ability.
The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine conducted a study that showed restricted sleep leads to increased injury risk through several factors, one of the most notable being increased mental errors. While these errors may not pose a physical threat in an office setting, these lapses in judgement can be especially impactful in high-speed, contact sports where timing is crucial.
Additionally, the study shows insufficient sleep leads to quicker exhaustion and diminishes the awareness and judgment of the athletes. Lastly, a lack directly causes injury in the form of physical stress, inflammatory markers, and weight gain. It creates a cycle where athletes are more physically vulnerable and then are more likely to injure themselves due to decreased mental capacity.
Just as athletes often need more calories than the average person to fuel their ability to exert so much energy, studies show they may also need more rest. While there isn’t one recommended amount for everyone, the ranges generally depend on age, size, and daily activity. It’s not that different when it comes to athletes.
“Getting enough sleep is crucial for athletic performance,” says Dr. David Geier M.D., a renowned specialist in sports medicine.
You're pushing your body in practice, so you need more time to recover.
Younger adolescent athletes will likely need the most sleep of all to account for their physical growth, brain development, and hormonal balances. The Gatorade Sports Science Institute recommends that adolescents get over nine hours per night, though research shows that on average they are getting just a little over seven.
For adults, various studies have shown that sleeping for a period of ten hours per night has led to increased athletic performance. However, these studies haven’t been performed with a non-athletic subject group, meaning it is possible that these benefits could extend beyond the realm of athletics, or strictly apply to those who burn a higher than average daily number of calories.
In the realm of athletics, it is no secret that men and women operate and perform differently, and Harvard Medical School has done some research into how these differences relate to injury. Despite the fact that NFL football players have become the posterchildren for concussions and other common injuries, “Women are actually more prone than men to suffer many of the most common sports-related injuries,” says Dr. Robert H. Schmerling, MD.
The reasoning behind this claim has to do with both the way women play, and the way they are built. Research shows ankle sprains, stress fractures, shoulder trouble, knee injuries, and plantar fasciitis are all more likely to occur among women in athletics, than men.
While we know sleep can reduce the risk of injury and quicken recovery among both sexes, research shows that women need on average twenty more minutes per day than men. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this is because women utilize more of their brain and are more likely to mult-task, requiring more time to recover. As it seems women are additionally more prone to certain sports injuries than men, sleep becomes more important in preventing accident and injury wherever possible.
While conclusive research showing that certain sports require more sleep than others doesn’t exist, there are some parallels we can draw between the benefits of rest and the requirements of individual sports.
As sleep has a demonstrated positive effect on response time, accuracy, speed, decision making, and career length, sports that necesitate high performance in these measures make sleep especially important. For example, basketball, soccer, and football each require fast reaction times, good decision making, and accuracy. Tennis requires exceptionally fast reaction time and decision making.
While gymnastics may not require the former skills, career length is often a struggle, and improved sleep may help extend it. Most sports require at least one, or a combination of these elements, and sleep is shown to be an important factor in their successful performance.
While Human Growth Hormone (HGH) supplements are illegal in the realm of competitive sports, many athletes look for natural ways to boost production of this vital hormone. HGH boosts protein production, regulates fat storage, and is responsible for a variety of important functions including the growth of muscle, bone and collagen, according to a study conducted at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
The study showed the best organic way to boost production of HGH is through sleep and exercise. The hormone is secreted in pulses, one of the largest occurring within the first hour, according to a study performed at the University of Chicago.
While this hormone is shown to aid in the process of building muscle, greater muscle mass is not always equal to improved strength or performance. Muscle growth, known as hypertrophy, is a common result of resistance training, however larger muscles may not always be stronger according to a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The study evaluated both men and women, showing that while men experienced more muscle gain in terms of mass, women outpaced them by far in the strength they gained through their workout regimen. This not only shows that the methods really matter, but that muscle size isn’t as important as building strength when it comes to performance.
Athletes are notoriously bad at measuring their sleep efficacy. According to the aforementioned sleep study at the University of Pennsylvania, research subjects seemed to lose sensitivity toward and recognition of their fatigue as they grew more and more sleep deprived. Fatigue Science calls this “renorming,” as the longer we go without sleep, the more normal the sleepiness feels.
Using tools such as smartphone sleep analytics and the Stanford or Epworth Sleepiness Scale can account for errors in judgement and give you a good idea of where you stand in regards to your snoozing.
Both the Dolphins and Patriots NFL teams have dark rooms within their practice facilities to accommodate for poor sleep among their players. Several studies have shown that naps are an effective way to catch up on sleep debt, boost cognitive function, and reduce daytime sleepiness, especially for athletes who are often on the road.
Overtraining among athletes is associated with increased injury risk and poor sleep. When athletes push their bodies to their extremes, additional recovery time is required for the body to be prepared to continue training and performing. Continuously tearing down muscle without giving the body time to synthesize protein and replenish hormones will result in excess fatigue, according to a new study conducted by French scientists.
The study suggests that this increase in fatigue often leads to an abrupt decline in performance, as well as difficulty sleeping. According to the study, if you often find yourself waking up in the middle of the night due to your own excess movement, you may be overtrained.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends eating a combination of protein and complex carbs, such as peanut butter and toast, a few minutes before bed. This combination creates the amino acid, Tryptophan, which increases sleepiness.
Additionally, protein doesn’t break down quickly like carbohydrates and will sustain your body through the night, as long as you don’t over do it. A six ounce steak might be a bit much to digest but a handful of almonds could do the trick.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, sometimes it sounds like a good idea to hop on the elliptical for a good sweat session to wear yourself out before bed. According to the Institute of Human Movement Sciences and Sport at ETH Zurich, this may not be a bad idea. Their study shows evening exercise can offer some marginal benefits including more time spent in deeper sleep.
However, ETH Zurich does recommend avoiding exercise in the hour directly before bed, as it takes time for a heart rate to return to a normal level, allowing you to fall asleep.
Sticking to a schedule will help hone your body’s internal clock, also known as a circadian rhythm. Our bodies are triggered by a variety of factors, including light, temperature, sound, and when we eat. The more we are able to regulate these elements into a routine, the easier it will be for our bodies to identify when it’s time to sleep, and when we should be awake.
While alcohol may be effective in temporarily decreasing stress and allowing you to loosen up, studies have shown it to be a poor choice of sleeping aid. Alcohol disrupts REM cycles, making it difficult to stay asleep all night, allowing your body to properly repair itself. This disruption can even cause daytime sleepiness, poor concentration, and in some cases sleep apnea.
Additionally, while avoiding caffeine before bed is common sense, Psychology Today reports that even drinking coffee at all can significantly reduce sleep time. The study goes so far as to suggest that coffee can have a significant effect on sleep even without participants noticing the disruptions to their sleep.
While sleep is important for everyone, it’s absolutely essential for athletes. Sleep provides the necessary repairs to the muscles that were broken down during training, and clears the brain of all unnecessary material, allowing cognitive function to increase. Accounting for improvement in a wide range of performance measures, it’s not surprising that professional teams everywhere are turning back to the simplest of techniques to get an edge on the competition.