February 16, 2017 Meredtih Kessler

Sleep the Ultimate Performance and Recovery Tool


Athletes and elite athletes are very different from the general public or members of occupational groups such as public safety officers or the military when it comes to sleep patterns. Sleep is the ultimate performance and recovery tool.

Athletes have distinctive physical and mental demands, rigorous competition and training schedules, along with complicated travel routines. Coaches and trainers, need to be careful about applying general assumptions about sleep to the athlete population.

Sleep promotes physical and mental recovery.

Sleep is the ultimate performance and recovery tool.

Sleep factors have been shown to have a direct effect on cognitive function, metabolic control of energy, appetite and weight control along with muscle and tissue repair.

Cognition, metabolism and tissue repair are critical physiological processes that contribute to training capacity, recovery, and performance of any athlete.

There has been recent research on athlete populations that have provided objective evidence that confirms the importance of sleep in athlete development and performance.

The length of time an athlete rests along with the quality of their sleep and circadian rhythm of their sleep are critical to the recovery and regeneration process to keep them preforming at a high level. These factors affect an athlete’s ability to train, maximize the training response, perform and recover. Capitalizing on the restorative power of sleep will help maximize an athlete’s energy, mood, decision-making abilities and reflexes. Understanding the importance of sleep will reduce the risk of overtraining, down time for recovery, resistance to illness and improve recovery from injury.

How Long Should An Athlete Sleep Each Night?

For sleep to be restorative, it must be of suitable duration. This is a universal principle but applies to everyone, including athletes whose physical recovery may need to be greater than the average individual.

All of our sleep requirements change over the course of our life, varying amounting to sleep we need each night. For example, 8 to 12-year-olds need about 9.5 to 10 hours, 12 to 16-year-olds need about 9 hours, and 16 to 22-year-olds need about 9 to 10 hours per night. Strategic napping may be particularly beneficial for young athletes who, due to school commitments and training, may not be able to achieve the recommended amount of sleep per night.

Sleep Routine and Environment are critical

Maintaining a regular sleep routine with a comfortable sleeping environment can maximize sleep quality.

A key indicator of sleep disorders is excessive sleepiness, despite adequate sleep length. This is due to ‘non-restorative’ sleep, which is poor quality due to interruptions from sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Sleep disorders are common and treatable but often remain undiagnosed. It’s especially important to find out if younger athletes suffer from sleep disorders because intervention at an early age could make a huge difference for their long-term athletic development and performance. Travel can also affect sleep quality, so jet lag management and sleep scheduling while traveling is mandatory.

Circadian Rhythm Impact on Athletic Performance

The circadian system regulates the feeling of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day, which directly affects athletic performance.

After awakening in the morning, the average person feels alert until about 2 pm, when the need for a catnap feeling kicks in. This tends to last for 30 to 60 minutes, and then alertness rises again with a peak in the evening around 6 to 8 pm.

After this point sleepiness increases, which facilitates the onset of sleep at bedtime.

Individuals have a preferred sleep program that reflects their unique circadian rhythm. Training, school, exposure to technology and other life commitments can have a substantial impact on an athlete’s ability to match their circadian rhythm to the available time for sleep.

If the circadian phase and sleep schedule are out of sync, the amount of sleep that can be achieved, as well as the quality of that sleep, will be affected.

For example, teenagers have a natural tendency to become night owls, delaying bedtime. The delay in sleep onset in combination with having to get up for school and the fact that adolescents need 9 to 10 hours of sleep per day results in a chronic sleep deficit that affects wake hour performance, moods, may increase their appetite and impairs post-exercise recovery.

Sleep is the foundation of recovery and critical to the management of athletic training regimens. Without adequate sleep, athletes will not be able to perform efficiently, be it an off season football program, speed and agility exercises, or any sports performance training program.

Sleep is often ignored and compromised by athletes as a result of their busy schedules, other demands such as work and school, and most importantly by the intrusion of technology (cell phones, computers, and tablets) into their life. This technology inhibits normal sleep patterns and fosters a heightened state of stimulation, which acts as a barrier to the onset and maintenance of the sleep state.

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