Professor of neuroscience Matthew Walker, who’s worked with elite athletes, has described sleep as “the greatest legal performance-enhancing drug”, citing how top athletes such as Roger Federer and Lebron James sleep around 12hrs a night.
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Training and racing on minimal sleep is sometimes seen as a badge of honour, but if the benefits of a good night’s sleep are true, then maybe we need to flip our thinking to reap new rewards.
How much sleep do athletes need?
Sleep duration and quality are both key if we want to boost our performance as much as possible, and those who train regularly have been shown to need more sleep (9-10hrs a day) than non-athletes (7-8hrs a day) to allow for 1-2 additional sleep cycles.
What are the different stages of sleep?
Each sleep cycle is around 90mins and divided up into four sections, three of which boost performance:
Stage one lasts 5–10mins and is your transition into sleep. You lose awareness and muscles relax.
Stage two, which lasts around 20mins, is where cognitive function develops. It’s key for learning techniques and movements and the shifting of motor memory from conscious to subconscious. Alertness and concentration are also enhanced.
Stage three is a deeper sleep, which enhances physical recovery through an increase in growth hormone and a decreased production of cortisol, the stress hormone. After the age of 20, most people get less of this sleep, despite it being just as important.
Stage four is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, reached about 70mins after you first fall asleep, sees 50% more blood flow to the brain to enhance cardiovascular, emotional and mental health.
How much does sleep affect athletic performance?
Getting enough good-quality sleep has been shown to reduce perception of exertion, increase time to exhaustion during exercise, and improve reaction times and time-trial performance. It also enhances motor function, alertness, peak muscle strength and even the ability to sweat efficiently. Injury risk also has a linear relationship to sleep time. While losing weight might not be something you need to do to improve performance, a lack of sleep has an impact on specific hormones that control fat burning, metabolism and appetite, with one study showing subjects ate 22% more with 3-4hrs less sleep.
How can athletes sleep better?
To ensure a good night’s sleep, we must first accept that sleep is key to performance, then build a pre-sleep ritual: avoid alcohol and caffeine, create a dark and cool room with no clock or electronic gadgets and stretch for a few minutes before bedtime.