Sleep & Recovery

December 29, 2022

We spend nearly a third of our lives asleep. With the physical and physiological demands placed on the body through training and competition, athletes should focus more on optimising sleep patterns and achieve a minimum of 8-9 hours of sleep each night to allow recovery and adaptation between bouts of exercise.

Athletes also need to have high levels of focus and motivation. These functions will be impaired without adequate sleep. Minimal sleep can also decrease glucose metabolism, which fuels the brain and the body for mental and physical performance.

Immune function can also be impaired, putting athletes at a greater risk for sickness. When athletes fail to sleep enough (less than 8 hours per night), the body fails to produce an adequate amount of testosterone.

Testosterone is a hormone that allows athletes to build muscle and gain training effects from difficult workouts. Muscles are broken down during an exercise and, with testosterone, are rebuilt larger and stronger. This is why athletes gain muscle when they lift weights or train correctly. This gain in muscle also called the training effect, is decreased without the testosterone to recover from intense physical activity.

Importance of Sleep

In general scientists and athletes have focussed on what they believe to be the two most important pillars of performance : exercise and nutrition. There is an old saying that goes, Exercise is the king, Nutrition is the queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.

But in recent times the spotlight showed the third pillar of performance, which is believed to play a crucial role in keeping athletes on the podium for the long run. If exercise and nutrition together make a kingdom, then a healthy sleep strategy is the foundation of that kingdom. 

Sleep should be a naturally occurring state of mind and body which is characterized by two phases: sleep typically is induced with non-rapid eye movement, in which the mind becomes less responsive to external aspects and makes it extremely difficult to wake up.

Sleep is a complex physiological and behavioural process, divided into 5 stages of sleep. 

Let’s consider the average lifestyle of an elite athlete in comparison to that of the average Briton. Gruelling workout routines, global travel, disrupted sleep-wake cycles, late-night interviews and public appearances, not to mention tech overindulgence to uphold a social media presence, often lead to countless late nights. These are only a few aspects that contribute to the hectic stress-driven lifestyles of elite athletes before we have even considered the psychological and physiological stress of competition itself.

It is no wonder that sports scientists generally recommend that athletes should strive for 10 hours of vital sleep rather than the seven to eight hours advised for a non-athlete. Despite all the evidence indicating a need for more sleep during competitive seasons, a current introspection remarked that numerous elite athletes are getting less total sleep than the average non-athlete.

This pattern of reduced sleep was observed throughout numerous sporting disciplines, including individual and team sports and strength and endurance-based sports.

Sleep Deprivation In Elite Athletes 

By this moment, I hope we can all agree that maintaining a good sleep routine is vital for optimal health, and deserves to be included as a pillar of performance right next to exercise and nutrition. Sleep quality and quantity can affect factors such as

  1. Reaction time : Studies have shown that even a single night of poor sleep, results in low-level fatigue, and can impact an athlete’s response times on game day as much as, or more than, being legally drunk. We’d never expect an athlete to show up on game day drunk, so it’s a wonder that more than three-quarters of athletes in a recent study reported getting less than the suggested seven to eight hours of sleep per night. A further 11 per cent reported getting less than six hours. Aside from the impact on physiological and mental wellbeing, a single night of disturbed sleep could mean the difference between a win or loss, coming first or second, or something a lot more sinister, such as a career-ending injury. Interestingly, a single all-nighter was shown to reduce reaction times by more than 300 per cent, plus recovery would likely take several days more thereafter.
  1. Accuracy and speed : Exhausted and run-down athletes experience impairments in accuracy and cognitive motor function. These impairments have also been shown to be on par with the effects of alcohol intoxication. A recent study observed the effect only five hours of sleep a night had on the tennis serve precision in semi-professional players. Not surprisingly, accuracy was markedly lowered due to the effects of poor sleep. Also, there was no improvement in accuracy even with the use of ergogenic support that has a reputation for improving attention and alertness, such as coffee. As well as the before-mentioned impact of poor sleep on performance, the list of harmful effects continues, including decreases in strength, time-to-time exhaustion, maximal power production, agility, cognitive prowess, and an increased risk of injury due to early-onset fatigue. 

One thing is for certain: every one of the above skills and qualities is an essential governor of elite performance. Even as little as one per cent reduction could mean the difference between going home with gold or leaving the match burned out, fatigued and/or injured.

Sleep is Training Too

Much of this intra-muscular chemistry and synthesis takes place at night when you are sleeping. It is also well known that during early sleep (90-120 minutes after falling asleep) there is a huge release of human growth hormone (HGH). This is one of the most critical factors in growth. You also need protein available in your system during this timeframe. If you do not get sound early sleep, you miss the release of HGH or greatly diminish it! In addition, the body needs a set point to release Melatonin (sleep hormone) so you can get sleepy enough to transition from wake state to deep sleep. A normal bedtime creates this set point and a set point for HGH release. One of the most significant events in human physiology in 24 hours is the HGH night release. In many ways, it is when all your effort and training effect goes into the bank! If you miss your normal sleep set point time by 90 – 120 minutes, you lose out on muscle repair, gains and maintenance.

Steps To Improve Sleep for Better Performance

  1. Optimize bedroom environment
  • Reduce as much blue light exposure before bedtime as possible. The light emitted by mobile phones, TVs and most tech can reduce our melatonin levels (The sleep hormone) while increasing the production of cortisol levels (the stress and wakefulness hormone). 
  • This results in a disturbance in our circadian rhythm, reducing both the quality and quantity of sleep. 
  1. Eat right to sleep tight
  • Consume a light meal before bedtime and minimize the intake of fats too.
  • Opt for tryptophan-rich foods or foods naturally rich in melatonin. Some foods that can help are bananas, raspberries, goji berries, walnuts and tomatoes. All of these foods are shown to boost deep sleep.
  • Magnesium is one of the natural relaxants that can also help in good sleep. 
  1. Cool your body
  • To drift right into most restorative sleep, the ideal sleeping temperature should be 18-20 degrees Celsius. 
  • Another way of cooling your body is to take a warm bath. This seems to be counterintuitive but your body cools down once it steps out of it. A lavender Epsom salt bath helps in muscle recovery as well.
  1. Reducing evening caffeine
  • Athletes love caffeinated beverages for their intense training sessions. However, caffeine has an average life of 5 hours, hence consumption of caffeine anywhere around 5 hours before bedtime can explain restless sleep.
  • Try a cup of chamomile tea instead.
  1. Aim for a large daylight differential
  • A night of good sleep starts first thing in the morning by taking direct sunlight exposure. Getting sunlight after waking up can reset your circadian rhythm and influence a better sleep that night. 
  • Getting as much sunlight during the day and getting as close to pitch black as possible at night can make a big difference in sleeping routine.
  1. Have a nap
  • Oftentimes 8 hours of sleep might be impossible for elite athletes but an afternoon nap can be a great way to reduce the side effects of sleep deprivation.
  • A study showed that a 30-minute nap in the afternoon with the following night of deprived sleep brought performance on psychomotor tasks back to ground levels, alertness improved and sleepiness was reduced.
  • Afternoon nap to be taken before 3 pm and under one hour to prevent any disruption in hormone balance and circadian rhythm.
  1. Try a herbal supplement
  • Nootropics are known in this circle for their role as a cognitive boosting aid. Certain nootropics are a blend of herbal extracts specifically for aiding quality sleep. 

Supplements for Better Sleep.

1. Melatonin: Melatonin is a natural hormone your body produces that plays a vital role in regulating circadian rhythms. It is made in response to darkness. Melatonin levels start to rise when it’s dark outside, signalling your body that it’s time to sleep. They then decrease in the morning, when it’s light outside, to promote wakefulness

2. Magnesium: Magnesium is one of the most common minerals on earth, and you find it in various food. Magnesium supplements have been linked to several benefits, including fighting inflammation, relieving constipation, and lowering blood pressure. In addition, magnesium may help treat sleep problems. It also regulates the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate sleep patterns.

3. Glycine: Glycine is an amino acid that is produced by the body on its own. We also consume glycine through the consumption of high-protein foods, including meat, eggs, fish, legumes, etc. Glycine increases serotonin levels. Serotonin is required to make the  sleep hormone melatonin. Higher levels of this amino acid can

·        Helps you fall asleep quickly

·        Improves sleep efficiency and quality of sleep

·        Reduces symptoms of insomnia

Sleep is one of the body’s most vital biological functions in performance, understanding, learning, development, and mental and physical health. While there are multiple consequences as a result of inadequate sleep, determining sleep issues and following the suggested sleep approaches can help ensure that strength and sporting performance is maximised.

Meryn Aricatt
Sports Nutritionist

Meryn, with a Master’s in Sports Science, is a pivotal member of the 'Evolve' vertical at iThrive, specializing in sports nutrition. She operates under the philosophy that "Nutrition can elevate a good athlete to greatness." Beyond her role at iThrive, Meryn imparts her expertise as an instructor for both the Functional Sports Nutrition and the Functional Nutrition Certification courses at iThrive Academy. She is passionate about helping sportspersons enhance their performance, ensuring they lead healthier, happier lives through the power of sports nutrition.

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