Hitting Snooze: How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance

Generally, physical fitness and nutrition seem to be the spotlight focus for improving athletic performance. While they are undoubtedly two primary factors for athletic excellence, there is another factor that is often overlooked or forgotten about. SLEEP. Sleep plays a major role in both performance and recovery. If you are not getting enough sleep at night, there is a good chance that you will underperform and your body won’t recover as efficiently. You may be wondering what “enough sleep” really means. Well, it depends on your age group. The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • Teenagers (14-17 years old): 8-10 hours
  • Young adults (18-25 years old): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26-64 years old): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (>65 years old): 7-8 hours

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WHAT REALLY HAPPENS DURING SLEEP?

When you are sleeping, your body is not in a consistent state of sleep. Instead, you pass through a series of sleep cycles, which are comprised of specific stages. The stages include:

Stage 1- When you begin to drift off to sleep. You may experience a sudden feeling of falling, or have muscle contractions.

Stage 2- Heart rate and body temperature begin to slow down.

Stage 3- Transitional period between light and deep sleep.

Stage 4- Deep sleep; this is when sleep walking and bed-wetting often occur.

REM (rapid eye movement)- Characterized by the rapid movement of your eyes, your brain becomes increasingly active as the rest of your body enters paralysis. Dreaming occurs here!

A typical sleep cycle progresses through the stages as follows :1,2,3,4,3,2,REM,2… On average, we progress through 4-5 of these cycles each night. Therefore, it is important to get adequate, uninterrupted sleep so that you can fully complete these cycles.

Studies have shown that people who do not get an adequate amount of sleep perform worse with split-second decision-making and accuracy (National Sleep Foundation). When you are drowsy, you do not have the mental capacity to focus on a task at hand and give it your all. For example, if you are in a cross-country skiing race after only sleeping for a few hours the night before, there is a high likelihood that you won’t be able to perform to the best of your ability because you are so consumed by your tiredness. Not only will your eyes feel heavy, but also the rest of your body will lack the energy needed for competition because sleep deprivation has been linked to a decrease in glycogen and carbohydrate production (the energy needed for physical activity) (National Sleep Foundation).

Some tips for falling asleep faster and staying asleep longer:

  • Screens are a no-no! Try and refrain from looking spending time on your computer and phone before you go to bed. The light emitted from the screens tricks your body into thinking that it isn’t time to fall asleep yet.
  • White noise- Many people find white noise helpful for drowning out other distractions that may keep them from falling asleep and/or staying asleep. A fan provides white noise, or there are sound machines that have many different white noise options.
  • Body scans- These are great for when you are having trouble falling asleep. They put your body into a state of relaxation. Directions: Lay on your back with your hands either resting on your stomach or placed by your sides. With your eyes closed, focus your attention to the tips of your toes. Take a deep breath and try to let go of any tension or stress held in that area. When you feel like that body part is as relaxed as possible, move up to your feet and ankles. Continue working your way up your body, focusing completely on each body part until it is completely relaxed. Once you reach the top of your head, hopefully your entire body will be in a state of complete relaxation, which should help induce sleep.