Sleep! It’s more effective than carbs, caffeine, or creatine for enhancing your athletic performance. But what happens if you just can’t get enough?!
This article will tell you everything you need to know about sleep and give you 13 super practical tips for preventing the negative effects of bad sleep (at the end).
First, have you ever wondered why we sleep?
You might be surprised to learn that scientists don’t know! The most likely theory has to do with restoration of the brain and body.
The restorative theory suggests sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. This is supported by the fact that restorative functions such as muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly (or only) during sleep.
The information consolidation theory, which nicely supports the restorative theory, suggests that we sleep in order to process information and motor skills acquired during the day, helping store information in long-term memory.
Second, what should healthy sleep look like?
In a normal night, you will go through several full cycles of sleep lasting 1 to 1.5 hours. Each cycle has five stages:
• Stage 1 is light sleep in which the body loses muscle tone and there is a loss of self-awareness.
• Stage 2 is a light dreamless sleep in which brain activity, heart rate, and breathing slow down. Body temperature decreases and we prepare for deeper sleep.
• Stage 3 is the beginning of deep or slow-wave sleep. Growth hormone (GH) starts to be released.
• Stage 4 is the deepest wave of slow-wave sleep. There is a continuous release of GH and the body does most of its repair during this phase of sleep.
• Stage 5 is rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep in which the eyes dart back and forth and dreaming occurs. Dreaming is known to provide energy to the brain and body and helps create long-term memories. Brain regions used in learning are also stimulated making this an essential part of sleep.
Third, how much sleep do we need to perform at our very best?
Most people thrive on 7 to 9 hours a night, but research suggests that athletic and cognitive performance is enhanced when we get even more—upwards of 10 or more hours a night.
Crazy, right! Making 10 hours of sleep a night a habit is unheard of in this modern society. But, just look at what 10 hours of sleep might do for you:
In a study of the Stanford University men’s basketball team during the competitive season, it was found that getting extra sleep of at least 10 hours a night for 5 weeks resulted in significantly better performance on a series of basketball skills tests.
After the “sleep extension,” the player’s free-throw and 3-point field goal percentage both increased by a whopping 9 percent. A suicide sprint trial improved by an average of 0.7 seconds.
Interestingly, the players also felt their own performance at practice and in games improved due to extra sleep. They reported better mood and vigor scores.
Researchers note that sleep should be a primary component of any competitive athlete’s program design, particularly during season when fatigue accumulates. To get the advantage, “sleep extension” needs to be a long-term practice because short-term studies don’t produce these performance improvements.
Fourth, how does bad sleep effect our athletic performance?
Poor sleep has a profoundly negative effect on nearly every aspect of your life:
• It reduces your ability to make good decisions and increases your tendency to take risks.
• It makes you more likely to be distracted by negative emotions and compromises problem solving skills.
• It lowers your ability to manage stress and causes the build-up of inflammation in the body.
• It reduces tissue repair and recovery from muscle damage. It may inhibit neural recuperation and delay strength recovery.
• It alters hormone balance, compromises immune function, and decreases blood sugar control.
• It reduces motivation to train and may decrease teamwork due to poor mood. Of note, working in a team may reduce the negative effects of fatigue compared to working individually when exhausted.
Fortunately, if you’re just suffering from a night or two of short sleep, the effects of sleep loss on strength and endurance are relatively minimal.
And if you take advantage of your circadian rhythm (your internal body clock), you can determine the time of day when it’s best to perform specific tasks, effectively decreasing the ill influence of lack of sleep.
Fifth, use your circadian rhythm to prevent poor sleep from ruining your workout:
Physical performance peaks between 3 and 6 p.m. because body temperature is elevated. Muscle strength peaks between 2 and 6 p.m., and is nearly 6 percent higher than in the early morning.
Joints and muscles are 20 percent more flexible in the evening and protein synthesis peaks around 5 p.m., making late afternoon the best time for training for maximal gains and faster recovery.
This circadian effect has been tested in studies. For example, sports scientists looked at the outcome of NFL Monday night football games over 25 years and found that the West Coast teams won significantly more often and by more points per game than East Coast teams.
Scientists think this is due to the fact that Monday night football games begin at 9 p.m. EST regardless of game location, which means West Coast teams are starting to play at what feels like 6 p.m. This is closer to the advantaged time for peak performance when body temperature is warmest.
On the other hand, East Coast teams start playing at 9 p.m. and frequently play to midnight, which is the low point in human performance. The scoreboard illustrates this:
East Coast teams won 44.8 percent of games when they played in their own time zone (both teams were thus playing at an ill-suited performance time starting at 9 p.m.).
Yet, East Coast teams won a miserable 29 percent of Monday night games when traveling to the West Coast (the West Coast team competing at their 6 p.m. and the East Coast team at their 9 p.m.).
Similar advantages have been identified for West Coast Teams in Major League baseball, and the trend holds true for other sports including competitive swimming, track and field, and basketball.
Thirteen simple tips for using the circadian effect for better performance:
1: If you’re a competitive athlete who normally competes at non-ideal times such as early morning or late at night, there is evidence to suggest you should train at the time you need to compete because the body will be better prepared to perform at this “off time.”
2: If you have to compete at disadvantaged times like the East Coast football teams playing against the West Coast in Monday night football, go through a longer, more intense warm-up to elevate body temperature.
3: When competing at disadvantaged times or when countering jet lag, use light therapy, stay hydrated (dehydration is an underappreciated problem when flying), and use caffeine (see below).
4: For peak performance, train and practice in the afternoon or early evening. You have greater strength, speed, and power as the day progresses.
5: For fat loss, there’s evidence that trainees experience a greater afterburn (EPOC) and higher protein synthesis if they work out at peak time between 3 and 6 p.m. Higher EPOC means the body burns more calories during the recovery period.
6: For muscle building, opt for late afternoon because protein synthesis peaks around 5 p.m. and you’ll have a higher quality workout when body temperature is higher.
7: For endurance training, studies show time of day doesn’t matter much for performance, so do whatever works best.
8: Take caffeine when you have to train or compete in the morning. Using 3 mg/kg/bw of caffeine can nearly equalize the strength and power deficit between morning and afternoon.
9: Caffeine is your go-to aid when sleep deprived and need to train or compete. It can have a huge beneficial effect on motivation when exhausted and it improves strength, power, and endurance performance dramatically.
10: Creatine is especially beneficial for strength, power, and sports performance because it restores the brain’s phosphocreatine stores when sleep deprived. A small dose of 5 to 10 grams of creatine paired with caffeine is your secret weapon to overcome lack of motivation, drive, and low energy.
11: Taking magnesium and taurine (200 mg/day of both) has also been found to reduce the performance drop due to long-term sleep deprivation. They aren’t stimulants or an energy substrate like creatine, but they appear to support physical performance by reducing the accumulated stress of sleep loss.