Sleep your way to the top. How to effectively rest, recover, restore and repair for optimal athletic performance
How did you sleep last night?
Hopefully you got a solid, uninterrupted eight hours. Especially if you’re training or competing today. Because sleep is critical to our all-round health and performance.
Sleep is when the brain and body reboots, recharges and our biological housekeeping takes place. It supports growth and repair, boosts cognitive function and helps to regulate our metabolism.
And without it we simply don’t function properly.
Our physical, mental and emotional health suffers. Athletic performance dips. Recovery will be poor. And the chances of fatigue, exhaustion and burnout all increase.
But the good news is – get it right and sleep is one of the most powerful weapons in an athletes’ arsenal.
In this article we’ll look at why we sleep, how much we need and the huge impact it can have on athletic performance.
- Sleep is vital for good cognition, recovery, performance and health.
- As an adult, you should aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. More if you are training.
- Sleep deprivation can lead to reduced psychomotor skills, mood imbalance and poor physical performance.
- Sleep regulates hunger hormones that can help control appetite. People that manage less than six hours of good quality rest each night often have higher fat mass levels.
- Sleep is one of the most effective recovery tools an athlete can have.
Sleep Physiology - Why is it important?
We’re going to go back to school for moment…
Think back to high school science lessons and you’ll probably recall Bunsen burners and dissecting frogs. And if you really think hard you might even remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
In his work, Maslow suggested that human needs can be structured into a pyramid of five tiers. With the more important life motivations at the bottom and the less vital elements at the top.
The things we’d ideally like from life – such as self-actualization, recognition, status and respect sit at the top of the pyramid. While our more basic physiological needs – such as air, food, water and shelter are at the bottom.
The top tiers aren’t essential. You could call them 'aspirational'.
But without the fundamental lower tiers, we simply couldn’t survive. Sleep is one of these essential physiological needs.
The anatomy of sleep
Without going into too much detail – and risk sending you to sleep to sleep before we’ve talked about the benefits! - there are some important points to understand about how and why sleep happens.
There are several areas of the brain involved.
The hypothalamus (a master gland located in your brain) is responsible for housing clusters of cells that receive information relating to light exposure. This is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
This helps to control sleep-wake cycles via circadian rhythms based on daytime and nighttime light exposure.
As ventrolateral preoptic nucleus activity increases, a neurotransmitter called GABA is released. This binds to your hypothalamus and arousal is inhibited, making you feel sleepy.
After a few hours of sleep, chemicals are released that activate your thalamus. Carrying a message to the cerebral cortex that it’s time to regain consciousness.
Phases of sleep
There’s no off switch when it comes to falling asleep. In fact, the journey that your brain takes to get you into a deep slumber is quite complex.
Usually, we’ll pass through four stages while asleep and will cycle through each stage several times in during typical night. Spending 5-15 minutes in each stage.
Stage 1: This is the initial and lightest stage that can be easily disrupted. It is characterized by drowsiness, slow eye movements and occasionally muscle spasms. Some people report feelings of ‘falling’ during this stage.
Stage 2: You’ve surpassed basic drowsiness in this stage and both your heart rate and breathing rate begin to slow down. Your temperature decreases and eye movements stop. Brain waves slow down, but you’ll experience rapid bursts of activity known as sleep spindles.
Stage 3: Known as deep non-REM sleep, this stage is the most restorative stage – which is needed to help you feel fresh upon waking. Heart rate and breathing are at their lowest and your muscles are completely relaxed. This stage is where walking or talking in your sleep occurs.
REM: Rapid eye movement is the dreaming stage that starts roughly 90 minutes after falling asleep. This is where eye movements occur and brain wave activity is higher than in any other stage. Being woken from REM can leave you feeling tired and overly sleepy.
The journey our brain takes to get us to sleep is quite complex. Passing through four stages several times throughout the night, each stage lasting 5-15 minutes each.
So, do we know exactly why we need to sleep?
The short answer here is no. Not really.
Many scientists have theories, but no one knows for sure.
Studies have shown that one of the reasons could be related to restoration needed from daytime brain activity1. When the brain cells are working overtime, pinging billions of messages around your body to help control vital functions.
The need for sleep could be to do with consolidation of memories. Sleep provides an opportunity to process the day’s events, build memories and support learning. To prioritize where information needs to be stored within the vast data banks of the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia and other areas of the brain.
Sleep helps us restore, repair, rest and recover
Another factor could revolve around our metabolism, which controls the cells that have been fueling vital processes all day. During sleep our metabolic rate slows down2 (particularly during phases 2 and 3), decreasing energy expenditure, heart rate and breathing rate.
This allows your body to restore from the day’s activities, to regulate hormones, replenish energy stores and repair damaged tissues and cells.
Esteemed neuroscientist and sleep-expert Matthew Walker highlights the fact that humans haven’t evolved out of sleeping. Suggesting that anything that left prehistoric man so vulnerable to predators and the elements – not to mention other prehistoric men – for such a large part of the day must have some solid logic behind it.
Nature doesn’t often get things wrong.
How much sleep do you actually need?
While scientists don’t always agree exactly why we sleep, they all agree that we need plenty of it.
There are some general rules when it comes to sleep quantity. But the amount we need to function effectively will vary according to lifestyle.
One of the biggest factors involved in sleep quantification is age.
According to the National Sleep Foundation3, adults aged 18 and over should aim for a solid 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. Teenagers need a little more to offset growth needs (as well as demanding lifestyles) with 8-10 hours.
Those over 65 should aim for slightly less with 7-8 hours. With school-aged children recommended 9-11 hours to support their huge growth processes.
Athletes need more sleep to support activity levels
Studies suggest that 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep.
The most recent figures revealed 27% only manage 5-6 hours each night. That’s compared to just 7% in 20134.
Such disregard for our primary growth, repair and recovery tool will have drastic implications for both health and performance.
Pro athletes understand the value of sleep for keeping their bodies in optimal condition. LeBron James and evergreen tennis legend Roger Federer slumber their way to 12 hours each night.
Sleep for sporting success
NFL star Larry Fitzgerald claims to catch a solid 11 hours of sleep on game days. Sprint king Usain Bolt used to prepare for his sub-10 second performances on the track with 10+ hours in the sack.
And during hectic golf competition schedules, LPGA pro Michelle Wie considers anything up to 16 hours as par for the course.
Okay, pro athletes don’t have to work, and can structure their whole life around their sport. It’s not like you can retire to your bedroom for 12 hours at a time when you’ve got a job/ spouse/ children/ real life all competing for your time and attention.
But there are clear lessons to be learned: professional athletes value their shuteye.
The Importance of Sleep for Athletic Performance
There’s nothing worse than having to survive a full day at work on just a few hours’ sleep. Or trying to drag yourself out of bed for an early morning jog when your head has only just hit the pillow.
But imagine if it was your job to train and compete hard. The pressure of success teamed with the excitement of sport can make it difficult for athletes to get the quality rest they need.
To be the best in your sport, you have to use every trick in the book.
Your training program and your nutrition need to be perfect. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning5, sleep is an important factor that contributes to optimal athletic performance.
Physical and mental performance
As a fundamental human need and essential process, sleep is crucial if you are to get your body working like a well-oiled sporting machine. It will help you recover from punishing competition schedules, get you prepared for another high-intensity training block and also help with learning, development and mental health.
Studies6 have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to drowsiness, mood disturbances and significant reductions in performance. Not what you need when you’re trying to hit the podium or rank a PR.
Sleep provides a crucial restorative tool for athletes. It is the best recovery tool there is.
Poor sleep habits have been found to have a negative impact on psychomotor functions7, processing speed and reaction times8. As well as measures of strength such as bench press and deadlifts.
Optimal body composition
There’s an emerging field of research showing that those who regularly skip sleep are more likely to be overweight. One study from Medicina9 showed clearly that subjective poor sleep quality was associated with higher fat mass, lower muscle mass and even lower bone mass.
Further research10 of multiple obesity and sleep studies supported this conclusion. Data showed that children were nearly 90% more likely to be obese if they didn’t hit their ‘sleep macros’. With adults as much as 55% more likely to be obese.
When it comes to hunger and appetite regulation, it is useful to know about two hormones:
In a group of more than 1,000 valunteers, those logging just 5.5 hours of sleep per night had leptin levels 15% lower11 than those that clocked a full 8 hours. And their ghrelin levels were an astonishingly high 14.9%.
As an athlete. It’s important to be in the best shape you can be. Lugging excess fat around not only reduces power to weight ratio and energy expenditure, it’ll have drastic implications for performance.
Sleep is good. Lots of it is better.
Good sleep is essential for maintaining high performance, body composition and general good health. Restricted sleep leads to hunger, impaired athletic performance, reduced psychomotor ability and a decline in health.
Sleep is one of the most powerful weapons an athlete can have in his/her armory.
Forget your elaborate rehab machines, ice baths and compression garments. Regular, good quality sleep is the best recovery tool there is.
Athletes should aim for at least 7-9 hours each night for optimal performance. More in periods of intense training and competition.
If you have issues sleeping or want to learn more, checkout out our guide to natural sleep aids here…