Wild Adventure

Sleep: The Silent Training Partner


When talking to professional athletes about their daily routines, you quickly realise a ‘day in the life’ generally consists of three things: Training, eating and sleeping, and each one is as important as the other. Training and eating go without saying, but many people think the reason professional athletes sleep so much is because they’re lazy, or because they have too much time on their hands. However, research done earlier this year at the Stanford Medical School of Medicine in California in the USA indicated that getting enough sleep should be as important a part of any elite athlete’s preparation as their training.

In this study, researchers found that basketball players who slept more than 10 hours per night performed better on the court, as their accuracy, sprint speeds, reaction times, mood and perceived level of exertion improved. They found that the majority of players usually experience fatigue or drowsiness during the day and were operating on a so-called “sleep debt.” Once they started eliminating this sleep debt, by increasing the time the athletes slept, all of the above-mentioned factors improved. Why? According to research, sleep rewires the brain and body, and lots of learning takes place while you sleep as brain connections are made and pruned.

Until now research has been limited to how sleep deprivation negatively affects athletic performance and not the other way round. Previously, Dr Eve Van Cauter from the University of Chicago Medical School found sleep deprivation can have a big impact on our basic metabolism, causing glucose metabolism to drop by as much as 30 to 40 percent. Her results showed that after four hours of sleep per night (the sleep deprivation period), glucose was metabolised least efficiently while cortisol levels (a stress hormone) were higher. Van Cauter said that after only one week of sleep restriction, young, healthy males had glucose levels that were no longer normal and showed a rapid deterioration of the body’s functions. This reduced ability of the body to manage glucose is similar to those found in the elderly. What makes this study interesting is the fact that it indicates sleep deprivation does not only impact immune and brain function, but can also negatively impact physiology that is critical for athletic performance, such as glucose metabolism and cortisol status.

Glucose and glycogen (stored glucose) are especially important for endurance athletes because they are the main sources of energy and the only way to store energy. Those who are sleep-deprived may experience slower storage of glycogen, which prevents storage of the fuel an athlete needs for endurance events beyond 90 minutes. Elevated levels of cortisol may interfere with tissue repair and growth, and over time, this could prevent an athlete from responding to heavy training and lead to overtraining and injury.

It is the alternation of adaptation and recovery that takes the athlete to a higher level of fitness, and the greater the training intensity and effort, the greater the need for planned recovery. This is exactly why high-level athletes who train much harder than most of us do have to sleep more than we do. So those afternoon naps that most elite athletes take aren’t just because they’re lazy or bored, they are actually a part of their training programme!

The question remains how much we as recreational athletes should sleep? Monitoring your workouts with a training log, and paying attention to how your body feels and how motivated you are, is extremely helpful in determining your recovery needs and should help you to modify your training programme accordingly. To get the edge you want, keep the following in mind:

  1. Determine how many hours is your normal sleep allotment to feel your best. An easy way to do this is to calculate how many hours you sleep after one week into a relaxing vacation.

  2. Particularly during season, try to protect that time for sleep. This means no electronic media at least an hour before bedtime, allowing you to rest before sleep so that you really rest throughout the night.

  3. Prioritise sleep as a part of your regular training regimen.

  4. Extend nightly sleep for several weeks to reduce your sleep debt before competition.

  5. Maintain a low sleep debt by getting a sufficient amount of nightly sleep: Seven to nine hours for adults, nine or more hours for teens and young adults.

  6. Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same times each day.

  7. Where possible, take brief 20 to 30-minute naps to obtain additional sleep during the day, especially if drowsy.

Source: The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. By CD Mah, KE Mah, EJ Kezirian and WC Dement. Published in Sleep, 2011, Volume 34(7).