Maintaining a healthy lifestyle requires regular physical activity. It is known that constant exercise increases life expectancy and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression. In addition, physical activity can also help people sleep better. But the reverse is also possible, as a good night’s sleep has a significant impact on athletic performance. In this article, we explain why regular sleep is so important, how it affects athletic performance, and also provide some tips on how to improve sleep quality.
The recommended amount of sleep and the challenges
According to a WHO (World Health Organization) recommendation, humans basically need about 8 hours of sleep per day. However, it is not always easy to balance work, family, education and a sufficient number of hours of sleep. Studies have shown that many athletes do not achieve the recommended amount of sleep, which then in turn has a negative impact on their performance the next day. On the days leading up to a race, stress also makes it difficult to fall asleep. A study published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that 70% of athletes reported sleeping poorly the night before a competition (some athletes also sleep poorly after the competition, which has a very negative impact on subsequent recovery).
Whether an athlete or not, sleep is essential for overall well-being. It is a fundamental element of physiological and cognitive function. In addition, adequate recovery is an essential component of improved athletic performance. The right balance between training intensity and recovery is required, and sleep is one of the most important cogs in the recovery process.
Why is sleep important for athletes?
Why is sleep so important? The most important reasons are listed and analyzed below:
- Repair of tissues, muscles and cells.
After training, energy and fluid reserves decrease, leading to muscle tissue breakdown. Along with drinking and eating, sleep is one of the most important components in the regeneration process. Crucial to this is that during the deepest stages of sleep, human growth hormone (HGH) is released from the bloodstream. This allows fat to be converted into fuel, muscles to be repaired and bones to be strengthened. The damage done to our bodies by exercise is “healed” by HGH so we are ready for the next day’s efforts.
- Recovery for the heart and disease prevention.
Exercise puts a strain on our most important organ, the heart. But it needs rest too! As we go through the different stages of sleep, changes in heart rate and breathing promote cardiovascular health. In addition, sleep prevents disease and aids in recovery after a period of illness. In fact, during the night our body produces cytokines, hormones that help the immune system fight infections. Another interesting aspect is that a good night’s rest can cleanse the brain of toxins. Athletic performance benefits tremendously from these restorative effects.
- Positive effect on the athlete’s mental state
On a cognitive level, sleep brings numerous benefits. First, it contributes to the consolidation of memory, since during the hours when our body is on standby, memories are transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory. In addition, sleep facilitates decision-making, increases creativity and adaptability. It also improves the athlete’s overall mood, prevents irritability and reduces the risk of depression.
- A good night’s rest accelerates metabolism
Sleeping at least 7 hours a night can speed up metabolism, which has a positive effect on fitness. “Too little sleep alters glucose metabolism, the mechanism that converts sugar into energy, leading to inefficient assimilation of this sugar, which is converted into fat, fatigue and poor concentration,” explains neurologist Fabio Cirignotta, coordinator of the Sleep Clinic in Bologna.
How sleep affects athletic performance
We have analyzed the various reasons why good sleep is important, especially for athletes. But what is the concrete impact on athletic performance?
The testimony of our running.COACH ambassador Paula Radcliffe is interesting. The former marathon world record holder says that she slept about nine hours a night during her active period, plus two hours in the afternoon. This strategy made it easier for her to regenerate muscles and tissues damaged by training. HGH is released about 20 minutes after you fall asleep. By sleeping twice a day, Paula received a double dose of the hormone, which accelerated her recovery.
The risks of sleep deprivation
We follow up on Paula Radcliffe’s statement by listing some of our body’s reactions to lack of sleep:
- Poor sleep decreases heart rate variability and growth hormone (HGH), which is essential for regulating muscle growth. Ninety-five percent of daily growth hormone production is released into the endocrine system by the pituitary gland during the third stage of non-rapid sleep.
- Sleep deprivation negatively affects responsiveness and increases the risk of poor decision-making, impairs concentration and judgment.
- Sleep deprivation increases the risk of diseases (such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, stroke), as well as injuries.
Causes irritability, anxiety, and depression.
- Leads to inhibition of skills, reduced precision, and faster exhaustion. Especially in endurance athletes, lack of sleep reduces muscle glycogen stores.
- Faster fatigue and reduced endurance in running. Sleep deprivation leads to a greater perception of effort for a given level of exercise.
However, it is important to emphasize that the parts of the body that need the most sleep are the brain and nervous system. Too little sleep will not necessarily affect fitness in the short term. In fact, the heart, lungs and legs can perform at peak levels even when sleep deprived, while the brain is less responsive. Only the perceived exertion will be greater. So it’s possible to run even if sleep came up short the night before. In the long run, however, a healthy balance should be found.
In conclusion, 7 tips for restful sleep:
- Create a “sleep schedule” and stick to it. Be consistent about your sleep-wake rhythm. The human body is essentially based on rhythm, and one of the central rhythms is the 24-hour cycle. Avoid sleeping in despite having free time and a break from running in the morning. Instead, use the time for stretching or postural exercises or other sports such as cycling and swimming.
- Avoid screens and electronic devices before bed. The rays they emit can cause insomnia. If you couldn’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something quiet to wind down.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and heavy meals at least 3 hours before bedtime.
- Keep the bedroom cool, dark and tidy.
- Avoid exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime and beware of overtraining.
- Introduce the famous “power nap.” If you feel tired in the morning, force yourself out of bed anyway. A 20- to 30-minute nap can help you find the strength to continue through the day. However, make sure this doesn’t exceed 30 minutes and schedule it before 2 p.m. so you don’t jeopardize evening sleep.
- Establish a ritual: create a ritual that you always stick to (e.g. always take a hot shower at the same time in the evening, stretching and breathing exercises, reading a book, relaxation exercises).