Everybody knows the importance of sleep when it comes to training and recovery. Too many of people/athletes are worrying about what recovery gadget to choose (massage gun, vibration roller, ice baths…), while only getting 5 hours of sleep at night after training. We need to set priorities! And, hands down, the 3 most important factors of recovery are: Sleep, nutrition and hydration. So, make sure those are optimal. As with everything else, long story short, the most important aspect if sleep is consistency.
Let’s start with some random, interesting things on the topic… Increasing the quality and quantity of your sleep comes with multiple benefits, ranging from higher levels of testosterone to faster muscle recovery and to just feeling better in general. I’ve even found one research claiming that 10 hours of sleep is much better than 8 hours when it comes to sports performance… “Sleep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery. And it’s very tough with our schedule. Our schedule keeps us up late at night, and most of the time it wakes us up early in the morning. … There’s no better recovery than sleep.” – LeBron James. “This may sound weird to you,” said James, who aims for 8-9 hours of sleep a night, “but for my 13-year career, I’ve taken a nap for the most part every day — and for sure on game days.” Never forget how naps are important too (just up to 30 mins a day does miracles)! Napping helps athletes to recover faster after intense workouts (some studies have shown). Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist and winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, naps regularly. More on napping at the end of this article…
There’s one group of scientists claiming that athletes who sleep on average <8 hours per night are 1.7x more likely to have an injury compared with athletes who sleep greater than or equal to 8 hours (8-10 hours per night being optimal).
They also believe that good quality sleep (falling asleep between 9-11pm, deep sleeping…) can be your greatest advantage or your greatest detriment depending on which side of the coin you’re on (affecting performance and injury resiliency). If you’re not sleeping enough, injury risk increases as well as a whole host of other suboptimal things. Healthy U.S. soldiers in training are less likely to suffer exercise-related injuries such as fractures, sprains, and muscle strains when they sleep at least 8 hours at night (Sleep health, February 13, 2020). Compared to soldiers who slept 8 hours a night, those who slept for fewer than 5 hours a night suffered double the rate of injuries. The average college athletes get 6.5-7.2 hours of sleep each night (J Sci Med Sport, 2014; 18), and increasing their sleep duration to 8 or more hours per night improves performance in many different sports. If you don’t get lots of extra sleep when you do prolonged intense exercise, you don’t recover as quickly and are at increased risk for injuring yourself. It works both ways: regular prolonged exercise helps insomniacs fall asleep more quickly. Sleep is necessary for healing your brain and your muscles. You’ve probably noticed that after endurance training (particularly) you feel very sleepy (which is a call to recover). You sleep to catch up on the energy that you lose being awake, both moving and thinking. Your brain uses more than 20% of your total energy, and the energy supply to your brain and nerves is regulated to a large degree by a chemical called ATP. When you’re sleep deprived, levels of ATP drop, and when you go to sleep, brain levels of ATP rise significantly.
“If you’re getting 6 hours of sleep per night or less, your time to physical exhaustion drops by 30%.” – Dr. Matthew Walker. This means that you will be tired 30% quicker than if you slept 7-9 hours.
This is also important because: “You don’t get stronger in the gym or at practice. You get stronger from the recovery of the sleep from that practice or that gym work.” – Will Ahmed. Sleeping 7+ hours per night is ideal to maintain those improvements made on the court, field, or gym. Also, the largest pulse of growth hormone is between 10pm and 2am. So, make sure you sleep within this timeframe (+-1-2 hours) because the deepest and most regenerative sleep occurs from 10pm to 2am. Otherwise, you may feel fatigued when you wake up in the morning (no matter how long you’ve slept). Sleep deprivation could decrease GH and Testosterone levels, and we know that these hormones are crucial for proper recovery (among other things).
There is another group of scientists claiming that 7 hours of sleep a day leads to the longest lifespan and the lowest risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular diseases, coronary heart disease, and stroke. One less hour of sleep per day increases risk of all-cause mortality by 6%, cardiovascular diseases by 6%, coronary heart disease by 7%, and stroke by 5%. One more hour of sleep per day increases risk of all-cause mortality by 13%, cardiovascular disease by 12%, coronary heart disease by 5%, and stroke by 18%. Those who sleep 5-6 hours per day are at less risk of an early death than those who sleep 8-9 hours per day. This group of scientists believe that 8+ hours of sleep per night is NOT healthier than 8- hours of sleep per night.
I believe that athletes need more sleep to recover optimally. But they believe that, on average worldwide, 7 hours is the sweet spot that maximizes your longevity. And less sleep (like 5-7 hours per night) appears to be less risky for you than more sleep (like 8-10 hours per night).
What about napping? If you’re feeling drained and want a coffee, try a nap instead. There are few rules of thumb: Napping 10 to 20 mins – this power nap is ideal for a boost in alertness and energy. This length usually limits you to the lighter stages of non-rapid eye movement sleep, making it easier to hit the ground running after waking up; 30 minutes – sleeping this long can cause sleep inertia, a hangover-like groggy feeling that lasts for up to 30 mins after waking up, before the nap’s restorative benefits become apparent; 60 minutes – this nap is best for improvement in remembering facts, faces and names. It includes slow-wave sleep, the deepest type, the downside is some grogginess upon waking up; 90 minutes – this is full cycle of sleep, meaning the lighter and deeper stages, including the dreaming stage… this leads to improved emotional and procedural memory (riding a bike, playing the piano…) and creativity (a nap of this length typically avoids sleep inertia, making it easier to wake up).
Most scientists agree that napping during the day for 10 mins up to 2 hours is healthful and can protect memory and other brain functions, as long as you don’t sleep too much at night (total sleep time more than 8 hours in my opinion). The most memory-beneficial time to nap appears to be just after lunch. If you find that you require frequent daytime napping for more than 2 hours in addition to getting more than 6 hours of sleep at night, you may need a checkup to see if you have some medical condition that is harming your brain or your body. Some scientists believe that you should nap for an hour or two after you take a vigorous exercise workout because it will help your brain and muscles to recover faster for your next workout. One is sure, several studies show that you will be more efficient in performing difficult memory and thought-processing work just after you wake from a nap, or when you get up in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
- What is the best sleeping position? Stomach sleeping generally decreases snoring, but could cause neck pain and nerve issues, and it could put strain on the spine (it’s hard to keep your spine in a neutral position). Back position can help alleviate neck, shoulder and back pain (no extra pressure on these areas). But it could increase snoring, and make the symptoms of sleep apnea worse. If you sleep on your back, put pillows under your knees to support neutral spine and decrease tension of some muscles. It seems that side position is the best option for most people. It enables the spine to stay in a neutral position, it helps alleviate neck, shoulder and back pain, and it can help decrease snoring. If you sleep on your side, put a pillow between your knees so your spine and hips are neutral (centered well), actually reducing strain on your hips. And pull your knees slightly up to your chest (the same reason as back position). The fetal position is very similar to the side position and it’s very popular. This pose is good for snorers. Just don’t be curled up too tightly as it can restrict breathing in your diaphragm (plus, you can feel sore in the morning as curling up and tucking chin into chest strain some muscles). Whatever position works best for you, choose a bed that is not too stiff nor too soft.
- We should sleep in cool (but not cold), dark room. We should avoid using electronics or personal devices in bedroom (turn off all noisemakers). We should limit technology use 1 hour before bed. We should reduce caffeine after lunch, and minimize alcohol at night (read more below). Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (restrict sugar-added foods and drinks and restrict sources of saturated fats), get plenty of exercise during the day so you are physically tired, try to sleep in the same bed each night, try to go to sleep at the same time each night. You can also consider waking up at the same time every day as some people have noticed that this trick is very helpful when it comes to stabilizing sleeping habits (especially what time to go to sleep).
- Try to sleep within a few hours after your intense workout as you may recover faster by sleeping than remaining awake. This doesn’t mean you should exercise late at night and sleep right after as it could mess your hormones. Anyways, this is an individual thing. Some people fall asleep easily few hours after hard workout and some struggle because of the catecholamines and cortisol that go up. But if you do prolonged soft static stretching, relax breathing techniques or some other relaxing technique, it could help you falling asleep faster if you are struggling. Basically, everything here is individual and YOU HAVE TO LEARN WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU (via experience – sincere feels, and education).
- Consider taking protein right before you plan to sleep. Casein protein (particularly) found in mammals’ milk could help fall asleep easier. Also, no more than one alcoholic beverage could help as well (alcohol “calms” catecholamines – helping you to fall asleep easier). There is also lots of good meditation you can turn on YouTube that make me personally fall asleep easy (especially if you have some thoughts disturbing you). Try those out.
- Some athletes have noticed that ice baths or cryochambers after training (or at the evening few hours before sleep) help sleeping better, so you can consider this option as well.
- I would say 8-10 hours is enough for most athletes, but 5,6 or 7 hours could be enough for average population that don’t need an extra repair and adaptation on their body & “mind”. Just try several options and your body will let you know. Also, try to fall asleep between 10pm-12pm because it will positively affect your recovery and you will be waking up in a great mood and fully recovered (if you sleep long enough, but not too long). And, don’t forget to nap as it will boost your energy which is often priceless! From 15 to 30 mins is the best option (remember that 30+ minutes could also help but that post groggy feeling can bother a bit if you do something important within next hour or two). Just set up an alarm alert and you will be fine. For more practical tips on napping, just read a few last sentences of this post (before “practical recommendations”).
For the love of movement,