The Importance of Sleep for Athletic Success
“Blame it on Edison”
Article By Bryan Barrett
If you’re looking to blame someone for your poor night’s sleep, start with Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. Thanks to Edison, sunset no longer means the turning down of the bed; instead, sleep has taken a backseat to nightlife, and has never regained its former place. Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean (1).
How does light affect your brain at night?
One lux is equal to the light from a candle 10 feet away and a standard 100-watt light bulb shines at 190 lux. Your body’s clock can be altered by any lights stronger than 180 lux (1). Your body reacts to bright light the same way it does to sunshine, sending out signals to try to keep itself awake and delay the nightly maintenance of cleanup and rebuilding of cells that it does while you are asleep (1). Too much artificial light can stop the body from releasing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep (2).
Understanding sleep as a biological process-
Sleep can be divided into two main electrical states which serve different basic functions. Slow wave sleep is a state during which the brain reduces its activities and neuronal activity becomes synchronized. This type of sleep is important for athletes because without its presence at the beginning of the night, growth hormone cannot be released from the pituitary gland (3). This hormone, which stimulates the protein synthesis necessary for body restoration, has an important effect on muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning (3), most of which are required in order to recover from strenuous workouts during training and competitions (2).
During rapid eye movement sleep, the brain is very active. It has been proposed that the process which occurs at this time is memory consolidation. The huge neuronal activity observed in the encephalon is postulated to strengthen the neural circuits that underlie learning. Some studies have shown that, after REM sleep loss, procedural memory and motor skills can be affected (3). During REM sleep, the brain is partly disconnected from the body due to a blocking of cortico-spinal pathways at the brain stem, motor activity is suppressed, and all muscles are in a state of total relaxation which allows effective myofibril restoration. An alternation between REM sleep and slow-wave sleep occurs regularly during a normal night’s sleep, allowing the various sleep functions to take place. At this time, the body can recover from the deleterious effects of waking and prepare to start as refreshed and alert as possible the following day (2).
Why is ‘*8 hours of sleep” the standard recommended by most health professionals?
The National Institute of Mental Health conducted a study having subjects stay in bed, in the dark, 14 hours every night for 28 consecutive nights. At the beginning of the study subjects slept as long as 12 hours a night, suggesting they entered the study with sizeable sleep debts. By the fourth week, their sleep stabilized at a nightly average of eight hours and 15 minutes—a figure interpreted to mean that most adults need this amount of sleep each night (1).
How does sleep affect an athlete?
Sleep has been recognized as an essential component for athlete preparation and is suggested to be the single best recovery strategy available to an athlete. One night of poor sleep in athletes is associated with reduced reaction times, reduced anaerobic performance the following day, and declines in cognitive processes such as visual tracking, focus, determination and mood (2). Reduced sleep in Strongman is a genuine concern due to the sport relying on fine motor movements, anaerobic energy system being the primary system used in events, and determination and focus being essential in the sport.
I always have a hard time sleeping the night before a competition…. You’re not the only one!
A survey of 632 German athletes prior to competition, 65.8% acknowledged worse sleep than normal at least once before a competition, indicating their main issue to be “problems falling asleep” (79.9%), due to “thoughts about the competition/game” (77%) and because of this “increased daytimes sleepiness” with athletes indicating “no special strategy” to enhance sleep (4). Even if total sleep deprivation almost never occurred, their sleep before a competition could be reduced or fragmented by many factors including anxiety, the new environment (bedroom), the travel schedule, and jet lag (4).
Tips for a better night sleep
1) Keep your bed for sleeping. The bed is not a place to watch television, browse social media, read, etc. It’s a place to sleep.
2) Listen to white noise or relaxations CDs. Some people find the sound of white noise or nature soothing for sleep.
3) Sleep in complete darkness or as close as possible. The tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your pineal gland’s production of melatonin and serotonin. When you wake up to use the bathroom at night, KEEP THE LIGHT OFF!
4) No TV right before bed. Even better, get the TV out of the bedroom. Television stimulates the brain taking longer to fall asleep. Also disrupting the pineal gland function for the reason above.
5) Keep the temperature in the bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F.
6) Alarm clocks and other electrical devices. Keep them as far away from the bed as possible.
7) Avoid Alcohol. Alcohol will make you drowsy but the effects are short lived. Alcohol will prevent you from falling into deeper stages of sleep, where the body does most of its healing.
8) Avoid caffeine. Studies have shown caffeine’s inability to metabolize efficiently and often times you can feel the effects long after consumption.
9) Take a hot bath, shower or sauna before bed. When body temperature is raised in the late evening, it will fall at bedtime, facilitating sleep.
10) Don’t change your bedtime. You should go to bed and wake up, at the same time each day, even on the weekends. This will help your body get into a sleep rhythm and make it easier to fall asleep and get up in the mornings.
- Randall, David. Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep. 2012.
- Davenne, Damien. Sleep of athletes – problems and possible solutions. Biological Rhythm Research. Vol. 40, No. 1, February 2009, 45–52.
- Weitzman Elliot D. Advances in Sleep Research. 1976.
- Juliff, Laura. Understanding sleep disturbance in athletes prior to important competitions. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport . Volume 18, Issue 1, January 2015, 13–18.
Bryan Barrett has been competing in Strongman for five years with two Top 5 finishes at North American Strongman Nationals and an Arnold Qualifier in 2015. A High School Strength and Conditioning Coach in Texas, married with two kids. You can follow Bryan on Facebook and Instagram