Sleep and Athletics: What the Pros Already Know

sleep and athletics

It’s no secret that getting adequate sleep helps us feel more alert (and less cranky) the following day, but recent science shows there’s more to it than that. Beyond what’s going on in your brain, sleep is also involved in the repair and restoration of the body.

What the Athletes Say

Perhaps no one knows this better than professional athletes, who rely on their bodies to be in tip-top shape day in and day out in order to compete. Serena Williams, tennis star and recent winner of Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” Award, has gone on record saying that sleep is such an important part of her regimen that she often goes to bed as early as seven p.m. As Serena puts it, “A lot of people underrate sleep. You need a certain amount of sleep to rejuvenate your body, to rejuvenate the cells and to perform, whether you’re going to school or whether you’re playing a professional sport.”

Athletic Performance

A study in the SLEEP journal confirms sleep’s role in performance through results that show declines in split-second decision making following poor sleep. Results also showed increased accuracy in well-rested subjects. “Getting enough sleep is crucial for athletic performance,” says David Geier, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, SC. Research shows that good sleep can improve speed, accuracy, and reaction time in athletes.

Geier goes on to confirm what most of us have already heard, that we need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. What’s surprising, however, is that he claims athletes may need even more than nine hours of sleep to allow their bodies to recover from daily training. “Just as athletes need more calories than most people when they’re in training, they need more sleep, too,” Geier says. “You’re pushing your body in practice, so you need more time to recover… Athletes in training should sleep about an hour extra.”

Another study conducted by the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory has shown that basketball players at the elite college level were able to improve their on-the-court performance by increasing their amount of total sleep time. This study tracked the Stanford University basketball team for several months. Players that added an average of almost two hours of sleep a night increased their speed by 5%, and their free throws were 9% more accurate. Additionally, they benefited from faster reflexes and felt happier overall.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

But it’s not just athletes who stand to benefit from better sleep. Anyone looking to shed a few extra pounds and be more in shape can “gain” from sleep too. According to Michael Breus, Ph.D. and clinical director of the sleep division at Arrowhead Health in Glendale (AZ), lack of sleep can have multiple ill effects on the body’s normal biological processes, including metabolism. “When you’re sleep deprived,” say Breus, “the mitochondria in your cells that digest fuel start to shut down. Sugar remains in your blood, and you end up with high blood sugar.” Beyond that, losing out on sleep can make fat cells 30% less able to deal with insulin, according to a study in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Living Healthy

Even if you’re not a professional athlete, but just a regular Joe (or Jo Ann) who wants to live healthier and be in better shape, it’s important to keep in mind just how crucial a consistently good night’s sleep is to your overall physical health and conditioning.

In order to regularly fall asleep faster and wake up less throughout the night, investing in a luxury mattress might just surprise you in terms of how much better you feel on a daily basis.

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