How ‘sleep = high performance’
Okay so maybe high performance isn't the pure result of sleep, and there are lots of different factors, but it is a fundamental to achieve that high performance. We all know how important sleep is. We do. It’s been drilled into us since we were small children with a ‘bedtime’ of 6:30pm. And there was a reason for this. Sleep can be your closest ally or your downfall – that’s how huge its impact can be on your performance.
Sleep affects how well you perform when you are awake. It’s a two-headed concept that needs respecting, taming, and practicing, in the sense that both the amount
of time you sleep for and the quality of that sleep matter. As an athlete, it is even more important to regulate your sleep to allow consistency in the way your body rests and recovers from exercise. The ultimate goal should be to achieve as much REM sleep as you can which, in particular, provides energy to both your body and your brain.
The graph below show that the effect that sleep deprivation has on performance, is equal or more than the effect that alcohol has on performance. Put simply, if you value your performance and personal improvements enough to not consume large amounts of alcohol every day... then you should value your performance and personal improvements enough to ensure you have a good sleep every day!
[source: Business Insider]
Why is good sleep important for high performance?
Reason 1: Sleep deprivation has a snowball effect on your performance. When you train your body gets depleted of energy and fluids, as well as experiencing the breakdown of muscle tissues. If you don’t sleep properly, these stores are not recovered or rebuilt. Your body therefore doesn’t produce enough glycogen and carbohydrates for your next training session. You won’t perform at your best in that training session. You won’t recover properly either. As this cycle repeats itself, it increases the possibility of fatigue, low energy and poor focus, which ultimate lead to more long-term consequences.
Reason 2: Sleep has a positive effect on speed, accuracy and reaction time. Without a good night’s sleep, you may not be able to think clearly or react as quickly during training or a game. This could be detrimental for team players such as footballers, rugby players, hockey players etc, because the team’s success is dependent on the efforts and performance of individuals.
Reason 3: Poor sleep can lead to depression and anxiety that will affect your motivation to practice as well as your physical performance at training or events. This is partly due to the fact that sleep deprivation increases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Reason 4: Getting less sleep seriously affects your physical health, as well as your mental health. Poor sleep increases your risk of getting injured during physical activity and can even make you more susceptible to catching colds due a decreased performance of your immune system. This will significantly impact your sporting performance because it will force you to take time away from training whilst your body heals itself.
Reason 5: : An individual’s poor sleep could also affect the morale of the team. You may be more sensitive, moody or irritable, which can affect how you get on with your teammates and coaches.
The symptoms of sleep deprivation:
- Feeling drowsy during the day
- Falling asleep easily within 5 minutes of being inactive
- Finding you need to ‘microsleep’ which is when you are sleep for brief periods when you are awake
- Being irritable
- Having difficulty paying attention or concentrating on tasks
- Taking longer than you should to learn new information
- Getting ill frequently
So how can you improve your sleep?
1. Snack on tryptophan
This is probably my favourite solution because who doesn’t take every opportunity to have an extra snack!
Tryptophan (pronounced trip-toe-fan!) is an amino acid that basically causes sleepiness. It can be found in foods such as turkey and other meats, seeds and nuts, fish, eggs, pasta and warm milk. Including some of these foods in your dinner after a big training day can not only help you replenish your depleted protein stores, but also help you sleep better that night! Personally, a fish and rice dinner after a hard run interval session, followed by warm milk or Horlicks before bed does the trick nicely.
2. Stop stressing… I know it’s easier said than done sometimes
Ever laid in bed and your help won’t stop thinking about that thing that went wrong that day, and how you’re going to solve it tomorrow? That buzzy feeling of stress can make it harder to sleep. If you didn’t fancy the hot milk of the previous suggestion, try a peppermint, camomile or ginger tea before bed (one without caffeine!!).
This one is all about routine. Leave yourself at least 30 minutes before you head to sleep, to relax yourself and get everything out of your head – try writing it all down on paper so you’ve got it for tomorrow but it’s not interrupting tonight’s sleep. Deep breathing exercises can also be beneficial in calming down your mind and body.
3. There’s no shame in napping!
If you’re tired in the middle of the day, take a nap! Most people feel refreshed after 20 minutes of napping. Beware: sleeping longer than 30 mins in a nap can leave you feeling groggy. Saying this, you should try to time your nap right. If you leave it until too late in the day it could cause you to sleep poorly that night. It would be better to train hard in the morning, eat lunch to refuel then take a nap, and approach the afternoon fully energised.
4. Avoid the whiskey.
Whilst I’m sure most athletes don’t make a regular routine out of drinking alcohol before bed, it’s useful to be aware of the effect that any alcohol will have on your body. Alcohol is a relaxant which will make you feel sleepy, however it won’t actually help your sleep pattern. It an worsen snoring due to this muscle relaxing effect, as well as make you wake earlier for more bathroom trips – alcohol is also a diuretic (hence having the same effect as a water pill).
5. Practice good habits
Linked to our previous point about building a routine, creating a habit can help you regulate good sleep. Below are some things to think about doing. It’s important to realise you don’t have to do all of them, but you should find what works best for you.
- Sleep in a cool dark room
- Don’t have your phone on your bedside table – the temptation to pick it up ‘just to check it’ is too much for many of us!
- Go to bed at a regular time
- Wake up at a regular time
- Minimise very early or very late sessions – with the busy lives we lead today; these sessions can’t always be helped but it’s good to monitor the effect they have on you.
- Avoid caffeine – if you can, only drink caffeine in the morning to avoid the effects of this stimulant on your sleep!
Is there a best time to train to get the best sleep?
In short, yes! But it varies for each type of exercise, and potentially with each individual, so it might be a good idea to try these timings, monitor your sleep and take note of what works best for you!
Morning cardio for a deeper sleep
When you sleep, your blood pressure naturally dips to about 10-20%, which is good for your heart and is how your body restores itself when you sleep. Therefore, an early morning cardio session could provide you with the idea blood pressure reduction, as well as maximised deep sleep, in comparison to doing your cardio in the afternoon or evening.
Strength training at any time of the time
Studies show that lifting weights at any time of the day doesn’t seem to affect your night-time blood pressure or the amount of time spent in different sleep stages. However there are some differences…
- Morning strength workouts help you to fall asleep quicker that night
- Evening strength workouts help prevent waking up multiple times in the night
The bottom line is, grab your weights whenever it works best for you!
Hard workouts in the evening might keep you up at night (or they might not!)
People tend to fall into 1 of 2 categories with this one.
1. Logically a hard routine raises your body temperature, speeds up your heart rate and stimulates your nervous system, leading to interrupted sleep
2. A hard session for some, 2 hours before bed, had no effects on their sleep. This could be due to, as the body temperature decreases it makes you feel sleepy, helping to settle into a good night’s sleep.
So, there you go, that’s your complete guide to sleeping! The bottom line is that all these tips and tricks and methods and hacks have foundations to them, but it is ultimately up to you to try these things, monitor what works before your, then make it a routine!