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Published on July 23, 2019

Male athlete sleeping on stationary bicycle

Sleep and the Athlete

As adults, we often wonder why toddlers and young children fight tooth and nail to avoid naps or stay up just 15 minutes longer. When they reach the teenage years, the glorious reality of sleeping in on Saturdays or summer mornings finally sets in. See? Isn’t sleep amazing?

However, it’s also during this time when teens and college-age adults are cramming for tests and exploring their talents in extracurricular activities. With so much on their plate, sleep takes the back seat. It absolutely doesn’t take long to reap the effects of sleep loss; in fact, it’s almost immediate.

“During adequate sleep, the brain files, sorts and prioritizes the information you’ve gathered over the day,” said Anthony Hericks, DO, Avera pulmonologist and sleep medicine expert. “Sleep greatly helps your overall health and well-being, which includes protecting your memory, assisting in recovery and regulating hormones.”

When sleep is a priority, athletes can more easily learn plays, enhance muscle memory, and quickly recover from soreness and injuries — not to mention, play at their peak performance during games and practices.

“LeBron James, NBA basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, reports that he plays his best with about 12 hours of sleep,” said Hericks.

With their high intensity lifestyle, athletes need at least eight hours of sleep each night. A full night’s sleep comes in stages. The circadian rhythm drives the internal clock of when you fall asleep as well as wake up. The stages are:

  • NREM Stage 1 – This light stage of sleep is just the beginning of every part of the body relaxing. You might experience the sensation of falling or sudden muscle jerks.
  • NREM Stage N2 – The second cycle constitutes of 50% of your sleep. During this time, brain waves slow down, body temperature decreases and heart rate relaxes.
  • NREM Stage N3 – Ever say something goofy in your sleep? The most restorative part of your sleep, the third cycle, is also the most interesting. Here, you may talk or walk in your sleep!
  • REM Sleep – Dreams occur during the REM cycle, which occurs every 90 minutes. The only way you’ll remember a dream is if you wake during this cycle.

While many might think lack of sleep is just a rough day you must muscle through, sleep deprivation (even for just a couple days), can be as severe as alcohol intoxication.

Likewise, sleep loss affects every area of the athlete’s health, and could have career-limiting consequences. Just some of the health problems alone include:

  • Increased risk of injury
  • Increased stress on the court and in school
  • Loss of creativity and confidence
  • Reduced ability to make snap decisions
  • Disorders to the body’s hormones
    • Cortisol, the stress hormone, rises
    • Leptin, the satiety hormone, decreases
    • Ghrelin, the hormone which produces hunger, increases
    • Growth hormone, which controls aging, decreases

"It’s easy for sleep to get off-kilter, but with effort, athletes or people in general can re-establish sleep hygiene that will restore function throughout the day,” said Hericks.

Whether you are an athlete, or have an office job, consider implementing the following for a better night’s sleep:

  • Keep a log. The first step is recognition. Write down when you go to sleep, wake up, exercise and drink caffeinated beverages.
  • Set up a plan. If you’re dealing with chronic stress or insomnia, turn to a professional for medical attention.
  • Manage caffeine intake. Avoid drinking caffeine after 4 p.m. Caffeine is mostly found in coffee, tea, soft drinks and athletic drinks.
  • Watch napping. Naps are wonderful, but more than 30 minutes may make falling asleep at bedtime difficult.
  • Ditch the tech. Set your alarm, and then place your smartphone on a stand on the other side of the room and just go to bed. Leave it there.
  • Exercise earlier. Break a sweat earlier in the day because working out gets the blood flowing and increases your alertness.
  • Same time, every time. Wake up and fall asleep at the same time each day.

Sleep deprivation is one of the most overlooked chronic conditions among all ages; many think it’s just the reality of modern-day living. However, for an athlete, it can be the difference between winning or losing, or even getting noticed for a scholarship.

This season, choose to win by making sleep a priority.

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