blog Jan 30, 2013

Athletes need a lot of sleep

I was no exception. And, as a high school and collegiate athlete, two really strong memories always pop up: Being hungry and being tired. As an athlete, my days were long (6AM-6PM) so I was always struggling to get enough food and sleep.

Sleep was the most difficult problem to solve. Between school, practice, studying, and the normal life tasks (not to mention a pathetic attempt at a social life), I tried to nap whenever I could - On the bus, in the car, in between class, and (let's be honest), sometimes even in class. But I never seemed to be able to catch up. Working with athletes today, Nutrition and hydration have been well documented but until now, I didn’t really understand how important sleep really is.

Working with athletes today, I've noticed that the problem is getting even worse. Kids are on their phone or tablet, working on homework late into the night, and not able to go to bed early enough to give their body the sleep it craves. Nutrition and hydration have been well documented but until now, I didn’t really understand how important sleep really is.

Although I've been aware of the problem, from personal and professional experience, I never really realized just how important sleep is to athletes, and really how much of it they truly need... Until I started looking into the research. Nutrition and hydration have been well documented but until now, I didn’t really understand how important sleep really is.

A study that really stuck with me is one out of Stanford1 that directly addresses how sleep affects athletic performance.

Rest when you're weary. Refresh and renew yourself, your body, your mind, your spirit. Then get back to work" - Ralph Marston

Researchers have tested athletes' need for sleep

Here are the two big conclusions from this research:

  1. Athletes need a lot of sleep (more than you would guess).
  2. Performance improves a ton when athletes get the sleep they need.

These conclusions were apparent after researchers did the following: First, they took 11 male basketball players from Stanford... They started by testing these young men daily for 2-4 weeks in each of the following:

  • A timed sprint test
  • A free throw shooting accuracy test
  • A three-point shooting accuracy test.
  • Additional tests measuring reaction time, sleepiness, and mood.

These tests established the baseline data.

...then they told them to sleep...A lot.

Their orders were to sleep a minimum of 10 hours a night, probably not unwelcome demands for a group of undoubtedly sleep-deprived college athletes.

...and documented how the extra sleep affected their performance.

The researchers tested the athletes daily over the next 5-7 weeks during their increased sleep period in the same tests used to establish the baseline data.

The results were amazing:

 How might YOUR performance improve with ADEQUATE SLEEP?                                        How might YOUR performance improve with ADEQUATE SLEEP?  

These athletes:

  • Sprinted faster (16.5 seconds vs. 15.5)
  • Increased their free throw percentage by 9%,
  • Improved their 3-point shooting accuracy by 9.2%.
  • In addition, their reaction times were faster, their sleepiness diminished, and their moods improved. They also reported an overall improvement in physical and mental well-being during practices and games.

Put the science to "work" for you

I’m no scientist, but I do believe that sleep deprivation (and, therefore, sleep debt) is a huge problem in our culture. For athletes in particular, it can really affect performance.

So what can you do?

For most of us, sleeping 10 hours per night is unrealistic, so here are 4 tips for improving performance with sleep. 

When in doubt, go take a nap. Sometimes, it’s the best ‘work’ you can do.

1 - Mah CD; Mah KE; Kezirian EJ; Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. SLEEP 2011; 34(7):943-950

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