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Sleep is often an underappreciated recovery tool. Athletes constantly look for things which will give the edge in their performance. There are hundreds of recovery tactics such as nutritional supplements, compression garments, neuromuscular stimulators, hot/cold treatments and massage which many athletes utilize. Many of these have shown to be effective in many scenarios. Even an increased mental perception of being recovered or ready will produce a significant benefit. So even if the measureable benefits are minimal, a placebo effect can be worthwhile.
In order to capitalize on this there is an industry growing in effort to supply all sorts of products which promise to provide a more effective way to recover. The wearables market has rapidly grown in response to our need to measure and assess our abilities and track these methodically. Many athletes are spending a small fortune in covering as many strategies as possible in an effort to give themselves the best chance of success.
Despite a willingness to try new strategies and spend large amounts of money, athletes still neglect the most proven recovery method available, sleep. Sleep is a critical process in our natural circadian rhythms. Our daily hormonal shifts are integrated into our sleep cycles. Some hormones promote sleep, others are promoted by sleep. This allows shifts in our nervous system which allows us to cycle through processes and systems that our body needs to survive.
Cell restoration is vital to an athlete. When we train we place stress on the body at all levels. This stress creates damage and our response to this damage and its reversal is what allows us to grow stronger, faster and fitter. This restoration is achieved through a healthy circadian cycle.
When studying the effects of sleep deprivation we can clearly see how important adequate sleep is. A reduction in sleep consistently demonstrates a decrease in cognitive function, reaction time, mental reasoning, immune function and an increase in muscle soreness and heightened risk of injury. In addition the mental wellbeing of an individual has been shown to be reduced significantly when there is inadequate sleep. All of these factors are critical when it comes to performing. They also play a massive role in the progression of an athlete’s abilities. In short, if an athlete is not healthy then they are unlikely to progress well over time.
Sleep must be looked at in terms of both duration and quality. Sleep occurs in cycles which typically have a time course. Broken sleep cycles may never have as good an effect as sustained sleep. For this reason it is not only important to get adequate sleep duration but also good sleep quality. One must sleep restfully enough to achieve deep sleep states.
There is no perfect amount of sleep as all athletes are different. Consistency of sleeping pattern is what athletes should focus on. Knowing how much sleep you need is important but it must not be compared to the needs of others. Generally speaking, athletes training hard will have greater sleep duration demands and must factor in the training period they are in.
Napping has been shown to have similar benefits to full sleep. The key to napping is that it is kept short enough not to interfere with regular daily sleep cycles. Research suggests naps should be kept shorter than an hour in order to prevent a full sleep cycle occurring. If one naps for longer the body may recognize the nap as sleep, which may affect our ability to maintain daily sleep cycles. This would have a negative impact on sleep quality.
Athletes must pay attention to what allows them to get good sleep quality. The factors below should all be considered by those who wish to improve sleep quality. Factors influencing sleep are often referred to as sleep hygiene.
- Environment: Athletes need to be in a quiet, cool and dark room to get good quality sleep. Optimal room temperature will vary from person to person but a room that is too hot or too cold will be uncomfortable and hard to relax in. The smallest amount of light can also disturb sleep as sensors that allow us to wake are triggered by changes in light. Stimuli that trigger our senses must be reduced to a minimum.
- Pre bed rituals: Certain activities before bedtime can make it hard to fall asleep. Using screens on phones and computers stimulate the sensors in our eyes that actually promote us to become more alert and awake, making it difficult to fall asleep. Stimulants such as caffeine can also override our ability to dial down and fall asleep.
- Learning to relax can also help to kick start the process of falling asleep. Over the course of a day which may include tough training sessions our body is reacting to many stimuli. If our senses are stimulated through activity, stress or excitement it can be hard to wind back down. Relaxation techniques may be beneficial.
- Alcohol consumption should be considered with care. Alcohol is a known sedative but many don’t realize that it has a very negative effect on late stage sleep. What this means is that it may help you fall asleep but it is likely to severely affect sleep quality during later stages of sleep. It can often result in extremely fitful disturbed sleep.
A routine of sleep preparation and sleep consistency should be a priority for all athletes. Sleep should only be rivaled by nutrition in terms of importance for recovery and athletic progression. Athletes should be aware of the sleep they need and how to get it. They must be careful to use naps appropriately and be conscious of maintaining good sleep hygiene and daily consistency.
Expensive and complex recovery methods and tools will never compare to sleep in terms of effectiveness. If one has not got an established routine of sleep then no recovery method will make up for it. Placing greater emphasis on sleep will yield greater results than other options. The take home message is to prioritize what matters over things which will only yield very marginal gains if any at all.
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