Sleep and training: the strategies to adopt
Sleep is a fundamental biological process for human health and plays an essential role in an athlete’s recovery process. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) weighed into this topic recently, stressing the importance of athletes getting the right amount and quality of sleep.
This is never more important than when we are still growing. Unfortunately, acute sleep deprivation is all too common in sport.
Factors that influence sleep in athletes
Numerous factors negatively impact how well athletes sleep. The major ones are probably training times, altitude, exposure to light sources, and the volume and intensity of training, but one also needs to take account of pre-race stress and nerves, long-haul flights – and especially the resultant jet-lag -, an athlete’s chronotype and so on.
For example, studies have shown that official competitions, especially when late in the evening (8:30 pm), can cause reduced sleep efficiency and a drop in recovery perception among professionals. The different types of sports also have an impact on athletes’ sleeping patterns.
Luckily, various strategies have been developed to increase sleep quality and promote good sleeping habits for athletes. These are normally termed “sleep hygiene strategies”. While such strategies can be hard to adopt fully, their benefit is not in doubt. Let’s look at them.
The 6 good sleep strategies for athletes
1. Remove light sources from the room. Light is the primary regulator of our body clock. Plus, light inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body when to sleep. In short, light keeps you awake.
2. Turn off electronic devices (TV, PC, laptop, mobile) in bed. Why? The backlight from their screens emits blue light, which is very disruptive. In practice, this means they keep us awake and don’t help us sleep. A recent study has even shown how NBA players who use electronic devices in the evening or at night sleep less. And this leads to performing worse in the game the following day.
3. Control the room environment. A bedroom should be silent, dark and no warmer than 19° C. Excessively warm rooms are very disruptive for sleep. Our bodies produce melatonin when our internal body temperature drops.
4. Eat light meals. The time at which we eat and the nature of the meal play a key role. Light meals, with a mixture of carbohydrates and (some) protein at least two hours before going to bed facilitate sleep. On the other hand, heavy meals with plenty of alcohol or caffeine eaten shortly before hitting the hay tend to interfere with an athlete’s sleep.
5. Listen to “relaxing” music (not rock ‘n roll). The same holds for books. Such activities all help induce sleep. But they mustn’t be done in the bedroom. A bedroom should remain a place solely for sleeping at night.
6. Avoid heavy, length training in the evening. Vigorous physical activity in the evening can have a negative impact on how long it takes to fall asleep. Ideally, if possible, exercise should be done in the morning or afternoon, avoiding the evening and the night. Determining one’s own chronotype – i.e. whether one is a morning (lark) or a night (owl) person – can be useful in deciding on the best time to train.
Knowing, understanding and using these strategies is essential for anyone wanting to improve night-time sleep. An athlete who sleeps well reduces recovery time, cuts the risk of injury and improves physical effectiveness and performance.
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