Many of the world’s greatest athletes eat, sleep, breathe, and live for their sport. They work hard to win, from training to diet. But, did you know that in addition to physical conditioning and conscious eating, sleep plays a major role in athletic performance and competitive results? The quality and amount of sleep athletes get is often the key to winning. Studies have shown that good quality sleep can improve speed, accuracy, and reaction time in athletes.
Surprisingly, sleep is an active period, when the body and brain are processing, restoring, strengthening, and rebuilding what has been depleted during the day. For endurance athletes, these demands are extremely high. This phase of rejuvenation through sleep leads to enhanced speed, accuracy and reaction time, and ultimately peak performance! Most people need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. However, just as athletes need more calories than most people when they are in training, they need more sleep, too. You are pushing your body in practice, so you need more time to recover. Athletes in training should sleep about an hour extra. You can go to sleep earlier or take an afternoon nap. Sleep is sleep!
Sleep can be divided into five distinct stages. Stages 1 to 4 represent non-rapid-eye movement sleep; during a normal night of sleep, they are usually followed by the well- known REM or rapid-eye-movement stage (stage 5). Stages 3 and 4 produce brain waves which have a slow frequency; these stages are thus called ‘slow-wave’ sleep. Slow-wave sleep is vitally important for athletes because it is the part of the night when growth hormone is released from the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. Growth hormone stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building, and fat burning, and is hence one of the key hormones which benefit athletes recover from tough workouts and improve physiologically.
Studies show that when an athlete loses sleep, growth-hormone release diminishes. This may be a key explanation of why prolonged sleep loss can impair performance. Some research indicates that sleep deprivation increases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Sleep deprivation has also been seen to decrease the production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use during physical activity. In summary, less sleep increases the possibility of fatigue, minimal energy, and poor focus at game time. It may also slow down recovery post-game.
One study tracked the Stanford University basketball team for several months. Players added an average of almost 2 hours of sleep a night. The results? Players increased their speed by 5%. Their free throws were 9% more accurate. They had faster reflexes and felt happier.
Some tips that may aid your sleep:
1. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, including on weekends.
2. Seek bright light during the day, especially in the morning, and try to avoid bright and blue light at night. This is particularly vital later at night when bright and blue light can further prolong sleep onset.
3. The bedroom should be cool (less than 68 degrees), dark and comfortable.
4. Caffeine (e.g., coffee, energy drinks and certain types of sodas and teas) should be avoided at least six hours before bedtime. Nicotine is also a stimulant and should be avoided.
In addition to sleep, athletes should be eating correctly for optimal recovery. Recovery nutrition should include carbohydrates (to replace glycogen), protein (to repair muscle and tissue damage caused by the stress of exercise) and fluids (for hydration). Athletes should always be considering what they are eating before, during and after games.
You've been working your tail off all week in practice. You were the hardest worker in the off-season. You're going to have a fantastic game today no matter what you do, right? Wrong! A proper pre-game meal can make or break your performance on the day of the competition—and it does not matter what sport you are playing. All athletes' bodies have certain needs that must be met from food. No matter how hard you work, if you go into a competition with a large order of fries, a can of coke, and a few greasy burgers in your belly, you are not going to play to your potential.
Glycogen acts as your body's fuel source and is the vital ingredient to a proper pre-game meal. Glycogen is found in carbohydrates— more specifically, complex carbohydrates. Candy is loaded with carbohydrates; however, it is filled with high levels of sugar and contain simple carbohydrates, so they are of little to no use to the athlete. To make sure you are eating foods with large amounts of complex carbohydrates, look to foods that are high in starch—foods like potatoes, pasta, oats, and rice. This sort of food is an athlete's "best friend" when it is time to dominate an athletic competition.
Post-game nutrition could be the most crucial in terms of recovery and long-term success. The mindset of some athletes following a game is that they can eat anything. However, if they choose chicken nuggets and chips over lean protein and complex carbs, there is a high chance that they will be more inflamed and sorer, and not reap the benefits of their workout or game. As stated previously, when you exercise, the primary source of energy your body uses is carbohydrates. After burning through what is readily available in your bloodstream, your body moves on to your carbohydrate stores, the glycogen that is stored in your muscles and liver. There is a limited amount of glycogen stored in your body, most likely enough to get you through a typical training.
What happens, though, when you have to do weight training that same afternoon and you haven’t replaced those stores — heavy/sore muscles, fatigue, injuries, feeling like you are “running out of gas”? Give it time! Recovery is an all-day process! It can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to fully restore your glycogen stores. Within 30 to 60 minutes after exercise, your body can synthesize glycogen from the carbohydrates you eat at a much faster rate. Your heart rate and blood pressure also are elevated, so nutrients are delivered to your muscles and cells faster. Fuel your muscles. Your body also uses the carbohydrates and protein you eat during this window of opportunity to help prevent further muscle breakdown, and your body’s hormonal response to carbohydrates “flips a switch” from muscle breakdown to muscle building. Use this time wisely and efficiently to optimize recovery. I always recommend to my clients to have a protein shake and a banana, or a protein smoothie within this short window.
Train smart. Eat smart. Sleep Smart.
About the Author - Maria Moyles
Maria Moyles is a graduate of GMIT with an Honours Degree in Biology and Biopharmaceutical Sciences as well as being a qualified Nutritionist and Personal Trainer. She is an avid Health and Wellness advocate.