Sleep And Athletic Performance

Sleep is an essential component of health and well-being. The amount and quality of sleep you get impacts on your physical development, emotional state, cognitive performance, and quality of life. Studies also show that optimal sleep duration and quality for athletes is associated with improved performance and competitive success and reduced risk of injury and illness. Potentially some of this enhanced performance is gained through increased participation in training as sessions are not lost to fatigue or illness.

However, many athletes don’t get the hours or quality of sleep they need for a variety of reasons. Some of these are external factors such as work and family commitments, travel, academic schedules, or poorly designed training and competitive schedules. Even though these are external factors, if they are affecting your sleep it is worth looking at them to see what changes can be made to help you.

Other factors affecting sleep are very much more readily controllable. If you are honest with yourself about your self-assessment of your sleep duration and quality you are likely to find quite a few tweaks you can make which will improve the duration and quality of your sleep.

The first stage might be to begin careful monitoring of sleep. Most athletes are keen to upload their training data to share with their coach or friends but how many also share their sleep metrics. Many watches have the ability to measure both the duration of sleep as well as any periods of being awake and the amount of deep sleep within the total duration. There is an old management saying of “that which is measured is managed” and that can equally apply to your sleep. Regular monitoring will identify when your sleep is less than optimal which by comparing with your activities at that time can help you to identify the factors which are problematic for you. 

Some of the first factors to look at are the timing of your training sessions if you train in the evening. Try to finish no later than a couple of hours before bed. This is particularly important if you are eating your evening meal after training as you should aim to have a few hours for digestion before trying to sleep. Caffeine has been shown to have positive benefits to athletes but its stimulating effects will not help to get to sleep. Set yourself a deadline in the day beyond which you avoid caffeine.

One factor we recommend is the careful management of electronic devices in the hour or two before you go to bed. Phones, tablets, TVs, computers and similar all emit blue light, the wavelengths of which have a powerful waking effect on your internal body clock by blocking the hormone melatonin. Using blue light devices just before trying to go to sleep is likely to result in you feeling stimulated and alert just when you should be winding down. Either shut devices down a couple of hours before sleep time or change the background colour settings on the screen.

A significant downside to screen time before bed is also the mental clutter which it may cause. Reading an email with a work-related request just before going to bed is going to cause your mind to be busy. Set yourself reasonable boundaries to your working hours and don’t feel you have to automatically download emails in the evening. Keep yourself in control of what comes into your life outside of working hours, particularly in the time before bed.

Finally be aware of whether alcohol may be affecting your sleep. As an athlete you may not be consuming much but it may be enough to affect the quality of your sleep due to its affect on hormones. Whilst alcohol is thought of by many as an aid to sleep it actually is not effective. It may reduce the time it takes to fall asleep but this is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night.

Our top tips for athletes to improve sleep habits are:

  • Aim to get your training finished no later than a few hours before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening.
  • Shut down blue-light devices 1-2 hours before bed.
  • Set regular wake and bed times.
  • Do a sleep health audit over at least a 2 week period.
  • If you use a platform such as Training Peaks, record your sleep and other metrics to help you or your coach identify problems with your sleep.

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