Why and How Sleep Improves Your Athletic Performance
It’s easy to see how intense workouts and a well-balanced nutritious diet contribute to your athletic performance. You can feel and literally see muscles growing stronger as you push your physical limits. There’s one way to improve your athletic performance that’s not easily seen and is often overlooked – sleep. While you sleep, all your hard work comes to fruition. Without enough of it, at best, your progress slows, at worst, your body won’t reach its full potential.
Building Muscle While You Sleep
Every good workout plan incorporates rest days. However, the most important rest takes place at night. Intense workouts and weightlifting create micro tears in muscle tissue. The repair of these tears takes place while you sleep.
Sleep is far more complex than many people realize. On a typical night, you go through four to six sleep cycles. During each cycle, you’ll pass through five sleep phases. How much time you spend in each phase changes in each cycle, but for optimum health, you need to spend time in every phase.
Muscle building takes place during phase 3 sleep, the first of the deep sleep phases when brain waves start to slow down. It’s during this phase that the body releases human growth hormone (GH), the hormone that triggers the repair and regeneration of muscle. GH peaks during the first sleep cycle of the night but continues to be released in increasingly smaller amounts in all subsequent sleep cycles.
If you sleep less than seven hours, there’s not enough GH released to fully repair muscles. However, you also don’t get enough GH if you go to bed two or three hours late. Even if you stay in bed a full eight hours, alteration of your sleep cycle reduces the amount of GH released into the body.
Strength, Endurance, and Motivation
Lack of sleep reduces strength, endurance, and motivation to work out. While studies have shown that one night of inadequate sleep won’t affect your strength too much, chronic sleep deprivation reduces the strength of muscle contractions. When tested against caffeine and group motivation, sleep won as the key factor to consistent exercise and increased strength.
Speed, Agility, and Accuracy
Any sport or athletic pursuit requires a combination of skills, muscle coordination, and mental acuity. You need sleep for all of it. The varsity basketball team at Stanford University participated in a sleep study that was published in 2011. In the study, the athletes extended their sleep time from eight hours to a full ten. The results speak for themselves:
9 percent increase in free-throw percentages
9.2 percent increase in three-point goal percentages
Sprint times improved by .5 seconds
Improved physical and mental well-being on and off the court (as reported by players)
The muscle recovery, strength, and mental acuity of better (and more) sleep most definitely gave them a measurable edge in their performance. Who doesn’t want that?
How to Get Better Sleep
Better sleep starts with good sleep habits like:
A consistent bedtime
Regular bedtime routine
Regularly-timed, evenly spaced meals
Turning off televisions, smartphones, and laptops two to three hours before bed
Avoiding caffeine for four hours before bed
Sleep can also be enhanced with natural methods like melatonin and natural sleep aids. Remember that these substances may not be addicting, but they are intended for short-term use until your body is able to follow a normal sleep schedule.
It might take consistent effort and time for your body to adjust to a consistent sleep schedule. If you have an intense workout schedule, you may benefit from an extended sleep time just like elite college athletes. As you make time for better and more sleep, you’ll be able to see where your true limits lie.