How To Sleep For Better Performance
Toolbox: The pursuit of optimal cycling performance requires a careful balancing of training with recovery. While there are many aspects of recovery that are important, a critical, but often neglected component of recovery, is sleep.
Risks from Poor Sleep
Sleep is essential to one’s health and affects numerous aspects of human function including cognition, memory, mood, pain perception, metabolism, immune and hormone function and sport performance. Insufficient sleep has been linked to poorer health in general but more specifically, to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, metabolic problems including diabetes and obesity, depression, infections, and some cancers (1).
The relationship between sleep and athletic performance and response to training is, unfortunately, not well studied and study findings are conflicting (2). However, some studies show that sleep deprivation can negatively affect athletic performance in endurance sports and in repeated bouts of exercise. Moreover, inadequate sleep may affect muscular recovery, immune function, reaction time and mood stability (2).
How Much Sleep?
How much sleep does one actually need to be “healthy”? Based on a review of the literature examining the health effects of insufficient sleep, a recent consensus statement of sleep experts recommends that adults require at least 7 hours of sleep for optimal health (1). Given their higher physical demands and need for recovery, some experts have recommended that athletes may require up to 10 hours of sleep (3,4,5).
In addition to getting an adequate amount of sleep, it is also important to evaluate the quality of one’s sleep, which includes how long it takes to fall asleep, how often one wakes up in the night, how tired one feels when they wake up and through the day, and how much one feels rested when they wake up.
Many factors can affect one’s sleep quality but specific medical conditions that can affect one’s sleep quality include: insomnia (both getting to sleep and staying asleep), sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, low or high thyroid activity, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), respiratory problems, bladder and prostate problems, depression and anxiety. If you are concerned about potentially having one these medication conditions, consult your family physician to have appropriate investigations and/or treatment.
Here are some strategies to help optimize the length and quality of one’s sleep:
During the day and evening:
1. Studies have shown that napping can benefit athletic performance, especially if there was insufficient sleep the previous night (6). However, limit day-time napping to before the mid-afternoon and for only up to 30 minutes.
2. Avoid high intensity exercise 3 to 4 hours before bed-time.
3. Avoid stimulants like caffeine for 6 hours, alcohol for 4 hours before bed-time. While alcohol can help you fall asleep, it can cause mid-sleep awakening. Nicotine before bed-time should also be avoided.
4. Plan ahead in your schedule to go to bed and wake up at the same time, even on weekends.
Before going to bed:
1. Establish a sleep routine with relaxing activities prior to sleeping, including taking a warm bath or shower, reading, or doing yoga, stretching, or other relaxation exercises.
2. A light meal can help with getting to sleep but avoid heavy meals before bed-time.
3. Avoid screen time on your computer, tablet and smart phone for at least 30 minutes before bed time. Blue light from electronic devices can be stimulating and prevent falling asleep. Apps can also be installed to filter blue light and reduce the device screen intensity.
1. Create a cool, dark and quiet sleep environment with a comfortable mattress and pillow, blackout curtains and/or eyeshades. The optimal sleep temperature is around 18° C (7).
2. Limit the bedroom to sleeping and intimacy – keep school and work activities out of the bedroom.
Some books to consider reading about getting good night’s sleep include: “Say Good Night to Insomnnia” by Gregg Jacobs and “No More Sleepless Nights” by Peter Hauri and Shirley Linde.
Here is a previous Toolbox article with tips about how to handle jet lag and sleep problems while travelling.
1. Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society on the Recommended Amount of Sleep for a Healthy Adult: Methodology and Discussion. J Clin Sleep Med. 2015 Aug 15; 11(8): 931–952.
2. Calder A. Recovery strategies for sports performance. USOC Olympic Fullagar H et al.. Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise. Sports Med (2015) 45:161–186
3. Leeder J, Glaister M, Pizzoferro K, Dawson J, and Pedlar C. Sleep duration and quality in elite athletes measured using wristwatch actigraphy. J Sports Sci 30: 541–545, 2012.
4. Calder A. Recovery Strategies for Sports Performance: USOC Olympic Coach E-Magazine, 2003. pp. 8–11.
5. Scott WA. Maximising performance and the prevention of injuries in competitive athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep 1: 184–190, 2002.
6. Waterhouse J, Atkinson G, Edwards B, and Reilly T. The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation. J Sports Sci 25: 1557– 1566, 2007.
7. Marshall, G et al. The Importance of Sleep for Athletic Performance. Strength & Conditioning Journal . 38(1):61-67, February 2016.
Written by: Dr. Victor Lun, MSc., MD, CCFP (SEM), Dip. Sport Med (CASEM) is a Sport Medicine doctor who practices at the University of Calgary Sport Medicine Centre and is the team physician for a number of Canadian national sport teams.
Medical Advice Disclaimer
The information included in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult their healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this article does not create a physician-patient relationship.