You aren’t sleeping enough…for an athlete

What do Usain Bolt, LeBron James and Roger Federer have in common? They all sleep between 10 and 12h a night… and not just Friday nights either. Every night.

So what…?” I hear you cry. “…they are just lazy and overpaid.”

Obviously that's not the case (well, at least the lazy part), but the exercise physiologist/sleep researcher in me wonders: perhaps we have uncovered the secret of their success? If I sleep more (and 10-12h would be “more” to the extent of me losing my job and social life) would I too be able to churn out on-pitch performances that would propel me to the pinnacle of athletic stardom? (I’m already waving goodbye to my friends and employees)…  Meh, I’m probably too old, but it’s worth a closer look.Let’s start with the obvious. Sleep deprivation: what sleep scientists affectionately call “sleep debt”, can have dramatic influence on athletic performance. Researchers focus on this because it is easy to measure and every athlete will experience it at some time, through jetlag, pre-event insomnia etc.

Sleep less and your muscles will contain less glycogen (stored carbohydrate energy) for endurance exercise. Levels of alertness will be low and reaction times slow (ignore what it says in the image below, it's wrong!). Frustration and irritability can also infiltrate your performance perhaps leading to muscle tension, lack of concentration and patience. In my experience this can mean a higher propensity for injury too.

But what if we go the other way and sleep more? What happens when we do a “LeBron”?

A pioneer in this area is Stanford’s Cheri Mah (See her awesome infographic on this subject at the end of this article). Cheri has worked with a number of pro and collegiate athletes, tinkering with their sleeping patterns and writing things down in her lab book. She started by asking half of the Stanford tennis team to sleep for 10h a night. Soon after, the “lazy” ones were hitting better shots and getting better sprint times. Cheri continued with basketball and swimmers at Stanford who reported improved performance, mood and alertness… before going on to achieve new personal bests in just about everything they did.

So what is happening? Is the sleep-in the new Blonyx? (I had to get a plug in here somewhere)

As shown in a research study looking at ultra-runners (92km in a day), heavy exercise changes the athlete’s sleep “architecture”. After a good day’s training (92km is a very, very horrible day in my book - but these guys seem to love it) you will fall asleep faster and enter deep, slow wave sleep (SWS) quicker and for longer periods.

So why is this happening? Why do we need more deep sleep after exercise?

The majority of sleep scientists think that sleep is an entirely regenerative function. Psychologists tell us we retain or discard information taken in through the day. They also tell us that sleep is when we commit new skills to memory; perhaps we are improving our muscle up while we lie there, snoring?

This is based merely on speculation however. What we do know is that when we enter deep sleep we dump buckets of growth hormone into our bloodstream (About 50% of our daily dose in just a few hours). Growth hormone is fountain of youth stuff. It repairs muscles, builds bones and even burns fat. Just what the body ordered to recover from the day’s training load and get ready for more.

So, back to the secret of athletic success: Perhaps LeBron, Usain and Roger - in sleeping their lives away - are actually gaining a competitive edge? Ensuring that their bodies recover completely each night with a large dose of growth hormone means better training and better performance. Perhaps it can mean better performance for you too? 

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