Sleep And Athletic Performance

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.

MAF Training – An Information Summary

What is MAF?

The acronym MAF stands for maximum aerobic function. 

Why does MAF matter?

MAF reflects our ability to burn (oxidize) body fat for nearly unlimited energy. Reliance on fat-burning, a predominant fuel source potentially used for most of our needs, occurs in the cell’s mitochondria, found in muscles, including the heart, kidney, liver and many other areas. Fat-burning also increases production of ketone bodies, useful for energy by the brain and throughout the body, and helps keep energy high, and blood sugar and glycogen stores stable. Maximizing natural fat-burning directly improves all areas of health and fitness.

What are the elements of health and fitness which MAF addresses?

  • Training within MAF HR training zone
  • Beating sugar addiction
  • Turning on fat-burning
  • Controlling chronić inflammation
  • Managing stress

What is my MAF training zone?

Your MAF HR is determined by subtracting your age from 180.

Then modify this number by choosing one category below that best applies to you:

a. If you have or are recovering from a major illness (including any operation or hospital stay), are in rehabilitation, have been prescribed any regular medication, or are chronically overtrained, subtract an additional 10.

b. If you are injured, have regressed or not improved in training (such as poor MAF Tests) or competition, get more than two colds, flu or other infections per year, have seasonal allergies or asthma, are overfat, are acutely overtraining, or if you have been inconsistent, just beginning or returning to exercise, subtract an additional 5.

c. If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems mentioned in a) or b), no modification is necessary (use 180 minus age as your MAF HR).

d. If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, have made progress in your MAF Tests, and have improved competitively, add 5.

The resulting HR is the high end of the HR range with the low being 10 beats below. For example, a 40-year old in category b) would have an exercise range of 125-135 bpm. Users can self-select any intensity within this range.

Your coach may choose to work you to a slightly ‘adjusted’ figure in line with your goals or markers from previous sessions.

How does MAF training work?

Your MAF rate is the maximum HR you will train at. Your training zone is within the 10bpm below your MAF HR. Initially, exercising at this relatively low heart rate may be difficult but after a short time, you will feel better and your pace will quicken at that same heart rate, so you will not be exercising at that relatively slow pace for too long. In other words, you will walk, run, bike and perform all activities at faster paces. This increase in pace (or power) at the same MAF HR is also an important evaluation, called the MAF Test, that measures this progress. We include testing in your plan at regular intervals to evaluate that progress.

What if there is no or little progress?

The two most common reasons include:

  • Calculating a MAF HR which is too high. This could be due to an error in using the 180 Formula, such as choosing the wrong category.
  • Poor diet. Your diet can influence your fitness even more than exercise itself. For this reason we recommend starting with the Two Week Test to identify any carbohydrate intolerances and establish good eating habits.

What is the Two Week Test?

One of the most effective ways to quickly improve health and fitness is to determine your tolerance to carbohydrate foods. This can be personalised through the Two Week Test.

Carbohydrate intolerance occurs when we consume more sugar, starch and other carbohydrates than tolerable. The result is we store large amounts of these foods as fat, and we are unable to burn stored fat for energy.

Record your perception of your health and diet before the test to compare with your experiences during and after.

  • Avoid all of the following foods during the Two-Week Test:
  • All sugar and sugar-containing products: Includes basically anything with honey, sugar, agave, fructose, cane sugar, or syrup in its ingredient list.
  • Sweets and desserts: cake, cookies, ice cream, muffins, candy, gum, breath mints.
  • All non-caloric artificial and so-called “natural” sweeteners, including stevia.
  • Many canned and prepared fruits and veggies contain sugar or starch. Read the labels!
  • All bread, muffins, rolls and product made with flour (whole-grain, multi-grain, flaxseed, rye, gluten-free, etc).
  • All products made from corn and corn flour, including tortillas.
  • All pasta.
  • All snacks: crackers, chips, rice cakes, etc.
  • Energy bars and sports drinks.
  • Ketchup, mayo and other sauces and condiments. These often contain hidden sugars.
  • Rice: wild, brown, white, basmati, etc.
  • All other wheat and wheat products: whole wheat, farro, bulgur, khorasan, millet, etc.
  • All other grains: millet, quinoa, etc.
  • All potatoes.
  • All fruits and berries.
  • All legumes: beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, etc.


The MAF Method, Dr. Phil Maffetone

Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy?, Dr. Phillip Maffetone and Paul B. Laursen

Carbohydrate Intolerance and the Two Week Test

The Vegetarian and Vegan Two-Week Test