Now that World Cup 2018 is finally here, we get asked all the time how good sleep contributes to athletes’ performance on the pitch, on the field, or on the court. For sports fans out there, you’ve no doubt heard a lot about how some teams, coaches, and sleep specialists work around the clock to make sure that their athletes fully optimize their sleep. Whether it’s Lebron James reportedly averaging 12 hours of sleep per day or world’s fastest man Usain Bolt claiming publicly he logs 10 hours a night, top athletes get top-notch sleep. It’s no secret. One of the most important elements that puts an athlete ahead of a rival is good sleep. We all know that getting a good night’s sleep is vital to a healthy body and mind, but let’s delve into the question can sleep improve athletic performance?
How are professional athletes kept in optimum condition?
Coaches have long been responsible for creating a tailored training plan for individual sportsmen and women, employing an optimum balance of 4 key elements - mental and physical conditioning, nutrition and hydration to enable players of any professional sport to perform at their peak. However, more recently there has been an addition to this mix – sleep. Following the results of many studies, sleep has now become as important as the other elements in this performance-enhancing recipe. From getting enough of it to the quality of it, the sports world has become sleep obsessed, and from the evidence out there, it’s a wise move.
Need persuading? Take former golf pro and bedding expert Nick Littlehales who is considered the first person to bring the importance of sleep to the attention of football clubs, initially working with Manchester United, he developed relationships with players from national and international teams as their sleep coach. It was this man who designed Cristiano Ronaldo's unique sleep pod which he occupies the night before matches, and who reconfigures hotel rooms on arrival and swaps out bedding to optimize next-day performance. Or how about Roger Federer, who has famously credited his late-career revival including his epic 5-set Australian Open win against rival Rafael Nadal on getting 10 - 12 hours of sleep per night? In the NBA, teams employ sleep consultants to optimize travel and practice schedules for recovery before big games. Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry believes sleep is so important that his sleep routine includes the use of a special desensitizing flotation tank.
Why is sleep important for optimum athletic performance?
The average man on the street is well aware that sleep is vital to having the mental and physical ability to tackle each day at their best, but for athletes, who make a living from their bodies, they don’t just need to tackle each day, they have to succeed and push themselves constantly, taking larger toll on their well-being, and needing more time to rest and recover. Sleep recovery for athletes occurs because when they are asleep, the body releases growth hormone which promotes muscle growth, repair and fat burning, all of which helps an athlete’s body recover from the day’s training. Sleep is also essential to learning new skills, so for some sportsmen or women, their slumber is especially important to remember and be able to replay a new set move, for example.
In one recent study Stanford University basketball players were tracked as they added 2 hours of sleep to their 'norm'. The result? After several months, their free throws were nearly 10% more accurate and their speed on the court had increased by 5%, with the players adding they felt happier and had improved their reflexes as well.
In another study, NBA players who tweeted late night before games between 11 pm and 7 am, faired noticeably poorer than those who were sleeping; players on average scored less (down by one point), shot poorer from the field (by 1.7 percent), and had fewer assists, rebounds and steals.
How is sleep used to benefit sportsmen and women?
Top stars regularly sleep for up to 12 hours a night, a result of needing their bodies to rest and recover from the strain they put on their bodies and minds, but technology has introduced a whole new angle. There are now sleep-tracking products on the market that allow direct analysis of a players slumber, relaying information such as clocked hours, REM times and waking cycles. Access to this previously unavailable data allows the other 4 key elements mentioned earlier to be altered or amended according to the results. For example, if a long day traveling leads to a lack of sleep, then the training for that day can be shortened or split into sessions to allow for a nap to make up the sleep deficit. Or a particularly sugar-laden dinner may lead to the inability to fall asleep being noted for future nutritional plans.
What are the benefits of good sleep to athletes?
Why do athletes take advice on sleep as seriously as they do their fitness or diet? The benefits of getting enough quality sleep are far-reaching and go well beyond the next game.
Waking from a good night’s sleep gives you the energy to go at your day that little bit harder and that goes for sports practice as well. You’ll have the capacity to train harder and longer if you sleep well the night before.
Faster times or sprints
Rather obviously, if you are able to train harder then you can only improve your performance - whether you need to reduce your time or increase your distance.
Just one night of no sleep can reduce your reaction times, both physical and mental, to that of someone who is too intoxicated to drive. With the right sleep, however, a tennis player’s next shot or a batter’s accuracy will both be improved.
Sleep is not just about performance, it’s also about giving the body time to recover from the efforts of the day. Muscles need time to rest and rebuild in order to grow, and sleep is the only time that can actively happen, no matter how much you think you are ‘resting’ when awake.
Giving your body the time to recover, leads logically to picking up fewer injuries. When the body is fully recovered, smaller injuries have time to heal themselves, meaning that they have less chance of developing into more serious ailments that mean time off, surgery or even retirement.
Fatigue has long been recognized as one of the leading reasons for the retirement of professional sports players, if they are lucky enough to avoid a career-ending injury. With bodies primed from the long-establish sleep routines that have take advantage of the benefits mentioned above, fatigue is far less likely to be an issue, leading these athletes to enjoy much longer professional playing time.
How can athletes get a better night’s sleep?
Whether you’re an athlete or not, you don’t need a customized sleeping pod to improve your sleep. Just follow our easy tips below to fall asleep faster and get deeper sleep longer:
- Set a sleeping routine and stick to it. When you have established a daytime schedule, including your other commitments to family or work, set a bedtime and wake time and don’t deviate from it - even on rest days and weekends
- Making your sleep environment as comfortable as possible. Invest in a supportive mattress, a quality pillow and bedding set, the temperature to around 67 degrees F, use blackout curtains to create a dark environment and turn off all electrical items in the room.
- Banning everything but sleeping from the bedroom. Your body will associate your surroundings with sleep that is the only activity you conduct in that environment. The use of TV’s, laptops or phones will prevent the release of melatonin (the sleep hormone) due to the blue light emission that is invisible to the naked eye.
- Establishing a wind-down routine. Half an hour before your bedtime, limit yourself to activities that are either relaxing, such as reading a book or having a bath.
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol after 3pm. Both will prevent you from both falling asleep and entering the deep sleep phases during the night that your body gets the most benefit from.