Understanding the importance of sleep
Sleep is an essential requirement for athlete health and performance.
It serves a restorative process and is vital for numerous aspects of your body’s recovery both psychologically and physiologically. Sleep is also a vital component for the preparation and recovery from athletic performance and competition.
Various important biological process happens during sleep including integral metabolic processes, replenishment of energy stores restoration of cognitive function, and the reconditioning of the endocrine and immune systems.
Differences in sleep between men and women is recognised by the influence of sex hormones on the circadian rhythm. Female athletes are more likely than their male counterparts to experience subjective sleep complaints, as well as experience the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
One component that may contribute to this increase in subjective sleep complaints is the menstrual cycle. Sleep disturbance is a commonly reported pre-menstrual syndrome symptom. Approximately one in seven individuals report changes in their sleep during the time approaching their period. This is most common three to six days before the first day of your period.
What are the stages of sleep?
Sleep isn’t one unchanging state of unconsciousness. During your sleep cycle, your brain will shift between different stages of sleep throughout the night. A good night of sleep typically consists of 4 to 5 sleep cycles containing period of REM and non-REM sleep.
There are two main categories of sleep:
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
REM sleep regularly occurs during sleep, making up about 20-25% of the sleep cycle. REM sleep happens about once every 90 minutes during your sleep. Most dreaming also occurs during REM sleep and has been linked to being an important component of the learning and memory storage process.
During this stage you will experience the following
- Eyes move rapidly
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heard rate
- Increase brain activity
Non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep
Non-REM occurs for approximately 70-75% of the average sleep cycle, although the amount and type of non-REM sleep experienced can vary with age. It can also vary according to your degree of sleep deprivation.
There are four broad stages of non-REM sleep. These include:
- Stage one: During this stage, you begin to feel drowsy and doze. This is when you are transitioning between being awake and asleep.
- Stage 2: As your slip deeper into sleep, eye movements cease, your body temperature decreases and your heart rate and breathe rate begins to drop.
- Stage 3 and 4: This is known as deep sleep. During this stage your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate continue to decrease and your muscles relax. This stage is also associated with growth and repair processes.
What is sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation, or lack of sleep, is a prevalent issue within Australian society with an estimated 4 in 10 Australians regularly experiencing inadequate sleep.
Common effects of sleep deprivation include:
- Mood disturbances
- Impaired learning
- Impaired memory
- Impaired judgment
- Impaired concentration
- Impaired physical co-ordination
- Decreased productivity
- Decreased accuracy
- Decreased reaction time
- Decreased time to exhaustion
- Increased risk of illness
- Increased risk of injury
While some research has suggested females are more resilient to the effect of sleep loss, females also appear to be more vulnerable to the negative effects of sleep deprivation as women display higher fasting insulin levels and more prolonged increases of inflammatory biomarkers. This can be highlighted by females’ increased risk for mood disturbances and depression as well as dysfunctional cardiovascular processes, in comparison to men.
It should also be noted performance and muscle recovery can be impaired by sleep loss and poor sleep quality which may increase musculoskeletal injuries. This should be taken into account when establishing your training plan and during competition.
How does sleep affect your athletic performance?
Although the relationship between sleep and performance is complex, achieving a sufficient amount of sleep is important to optimise your athletic performance and recovery.
Increasing your quality and quantity of sleep can have numerous effects on your athletic performance including:
- Improved accuracy
- Improved reaction time
- Improved agility
- Improved mood
- Decreased daytime sleepiness
- Decreased fatigue
The recommended sleep duration for athletes ranges between 7-9 hours. Please note this is a guideline and your required amount of sleep may vary according to training load and individual circumstances. For example, extending your sleep is typically advantageous when traveling, prior to competition, or when you are injured or ill.
If you have concerns about your sleep, especially during training and competition, we encourage you to consult your coach to determine a training and competition schedule that best meets your needs or consult your general practitioner for further advice.
How can I improve sleep?
Although evidence suggests that athletic performance may be enhanced by extending the duration of your habitual sleep, it is common for athletes have difficulty with their sleep quality and quantity during training and competition.
Some helpful strategies to improve sleep quality and quantity include:
- Improve your sleep environment
Improving your sleep environment and ensuring it is a comfortable and restful space is helpful to achieve good sleep. Strategies to do so include investing in a comfortable mattress, ensuring the room is dare, limiting noise and managing the room’s temperature.
- Maintaining a regular sleep pattern
Waking up and falling asleep at around the same time each day can assist you in establishing a healthy sleep routine.
- Avoid consuming caffeine or alcohol before bedtime
Caffeine is a stimulant which can interrupt your sleep cycle, making it difficult for you to get sufficient sleep. Additionally, although alcohol can initially make you feel drowsy, it can negatively affect the quality of your sleep and should be avoided.
- Avoid sleeping during the day
Sleeping during the day, commonly known as napping, can make it more difficult to sleep. If you believe you cannot avoid napping, limit your naps to a maximum of 30 minutes per day.
- Limit your screen time before bed
There are numerous reasons screen time before bed is detrimental to your sleep quality and quantity. Firstly the blue light emitted from your devices disrupts the production of melatonin, disrupting your circadian rhythm. It also increases your alertness at night and compromises your alertness in the morning. Creating a ‘bedtime buffer zone’ before your bedtime can help you wind down and relax before it is time for you to sleep. Turning your phone on silent or do not disturb before bed is also useful to minimise any interruptions to your sleep caused by your phone’s notification.
When to seek medical advice?
If you are experiencing trouble sleeping or have concerns about your sleep, we recommend you consult your general practitioner or visit a sleep disorder clinic.