Importance Of Sleep For Athletes

Proper nutrition is an essential component for the modern athlete, without appropriate meal timing (related article) and nutrient intake, we can’t make those solid gainz in the gym. But sleep is just as important, if not, more important than optimal nutrition. Good quality sleep keeps our hormones balanced, muscle growth high, lowers inflammation and improves learning and mood.  

In fact, sleep could be the most important health “supplement” the fitness industry can’t sell.   

Every individual has their own circadian rhythm that reacts to environmental stimuli and maintaining a good bedtime routine is important for preparing for the next day. 

What happens during sleep? 

During sleep, there is a general lowering of vital functions in almost all your organs. It is a real “energy saving” process that organizes memories and prepares the mind for learning new skills via neural plasticity. 

Specifically, there is a decrease in cardiac and respiratory activity, metabolic activity, body temperature, and slowing down of hormonal activity in general. In humans, sleep is not always the same: certain stimuli like the dreaded blue light from your screens can lower sleep quality (Source)

How much sleep do athletes need? 

The amount of sleep required for effective recovery is subjective and generally ranges from 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. But be careful: sleeping less than 6 hours per night leads to a significant cognitive impairment, which in other words, means being mentally less active and “woke”. That’s not all. Sleep deprivation leads to impaired glucose metabolism, appetite dysregulation (Source) and a worsening of the immune system (Source). Not getting enough sleep has been linked to lower endogenous testosterone levels in men by up to 30.4% (Source); sleep loss is less well understood in women’s hormones due to the natural fluctuations in a menstrual cycle, but we expect there to be similar harms as well.  

An athlete’s risk of injury also goes up when they get less sleep (Source). More injuries mean less time in the gym, more fat, less muscle, undeveloped coordination and an overall less athletic, grumpier you. 

Muscles grow after training when you sleep. 

The body needs enough time and rest to build muscles. There are two different ways to recover after training: passive and active.  

Sleep and Passive Recovery 

Passive recovery, for example, means sleeping or lying on the sofa. Sleeping enough is very important to progress well in bodybuilding. Only by sleeping a lot will you get the best possible results in building muscles. If you train very hard, it is a good idea to do an extra hour of sleep per night per hour of training done that day. During sleep, the body and mind can relax. Muscles recover from intense training; protein synthesis increases so that muscle growth can occur. Furthermore, during sleep, the pituitary gland secretes large amounts of growth hormone (Source) 

Surely you know the beautiful feeling of well-being and relaxation that is experienced after a good night’s sleep. If you have the chance to take a nap in the middle of the day, do it. The recommended duration for this rest is 30-60 minutes, although some people prefer to sleep less because they feel numb after sleeping for more than 20 minutes in the middle of the day. 

In addition to getting enough sleep each night and maybe taking an extra nap in the middle of the day, it’s a good idea to take some time after training for about 20-30 minutes and relax. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments have been subjected to severe stress during training and training with heavy loads also imposes a duty on mental energies. If possible, rest for 20-30 minutes after training to practice mindfulness meditation. Research has shown that it improves sleep quality for people with disturbed sleep patterns (Source). Try to lie on your back by placing your knees on a pillow. The lower back and knees will benefit especially after a heavy back or leg workout. 

mindful-meditation-woman-on-beach-benefits-passive-recovery
passive recovery through mindful meditation

Sleep and Active Recovery 

Alongside passive recovery methods, there are ways to actively recover after intense weight training. Aerobic activities such as running and cycling are particularly effective for recovery. Walking is also a good way to put the body in active rest after training. However, it is important that these activities are done at a lower intensity because they should not further stress the system. Due to the increased intake of oxygen during aerobic exercises, the body eliminates metabolic waste more quickly than after training and is present in very high concentrations. 

Another method to recover as quickly as possible after training is to stretch the muscles. Stretching produces many positive effects on the body and mind, for example, a better perception of the body, elastic muscles more resistant to injuries and a relaxed mind. 5-10 minutes of stretching after training are recommended to draw the positive effects that stretching produces on the body. Hold the stretch position for 20-30 seconds, do not hold your breath during the stretch, and concentrate on the feeling in the stretched muscle group.  

Putting It All Together 

We as aspiring athletes should respect the recovery methods as well as training and nutrition. The faster we can recover, the more training volume we can use to stimulate our body to lose fat and get in shape. Put the phone away, it’ll be there when you wake up.