Many athletes and their coaches or trainers focus mainly on training regimens and what they do in the gym to improve performance in sport. What you do when you’re not training can play an equally important role in maximizing your performance. Adhering to a proper nutrition program is an absolutely essential component of an athlete’s program. Recovery techniques such as massage, ice therapy are examples of things that can improve athletic performance as well. The most overlooked component that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention is the importance of proper sleep.

Regardless of sport, athletes who get adequate sleep perform better. Insufficient sleep greatly reduces your capacity to recover and thus your ability to maximize physical performance.

Benefits of Proper Sleep

Below are some of the main benefits of proper sleep relevant to improving athletic performance.

· Restoration – your body and central nervous system recover from those intense training sessions during sleep. Adequate sleep helps to keep us young in mind and body

· Rebuilding – tissue repair and growth mostly occur while we sleep.

· Immunity – sleep is vital for maintaining a healthy immune system, which is important for warding off colds and other illnesses that can set your training back.

· Growth hormone release – this one is of obvious interest to athletes. Important for many things including recovery, repair, fat burning and maintaining youth and vitality, growth hormone (“GH”) is released in a pulsatile manner throughout the day and night. The peak output occurs within the first hour or two of falling asleep with about half of the day’s entire production occurring during the four stages or cycles of sleep. Studies prove that we can increase the production of this important hormone if we increase deep (REM) sleep.

Impact of Lack of Sleep

In addition to leaving you more susceptible to colds, flu and other illnesses, lack of sleep has been linked to many more serious health issues including blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Lack of sleep can also make you fat! A recent study performed at Laval University found that short sleep duration (5-6 hours in the study) increases the risk of obesity 27%. Proper sleep is important for maintaining a healthy metabolism and the release of GH during sleep contributes to maintaining a lean body composition (increased muscle mass and reduced body fat).

Mental and physical fatigue from lack of sleep can also lead to increased risk of injury. Muscles that are tired and not fully recovered are more prone to strains and tears. They also have a reduced ability to protect connective tissue, which can increase the risk of damage to cartilage, tendons and ligaments. I have experienced my fair share of injuries. Most have occurred at times when I forced myself to train even though I felt overly tired and my body was trying to tell me “no”. Unfortunately it took me many setbacks to learn my lesson. I cannot stress enough the importance of rest – when you feel tired or sore, take a day off from training and rest up. The benefits will far outweigh any negative impact you may think you’ll experience by postponing a workout.

How Do I Know if I’m Lacking Sleep?

Here are just a few indicators that you may need more sleep.

Do you regularly:

Feel sleepy while driving?

Have trouble keeping your eyes open during meetings?

Fall asleep reading or watching television during the day?

Rely on caffeine to keep you going?

Fall asleep as soon as you lay down at night?

Sleep in on weekends to “catch up”?

If you experience any of these symptoms, you are likely not getting enough quality sleep.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

The average person needs 7-9 hours per night. Harder working athletes require more than average person in order to fully recuperate. Athletes participating in intense training programs would be better striving for 9-10 hours per night. If you are fortunate enough to have the time, a short nap right after training does wonders to kick-start the recuperation process. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, underlining its importance as a basic need of life.

Factors Negatively Affecting Sleep

· Some medications – some over-the-counter and prescription medications contain stimulants to prevent drowsiness, which can affect sleep. Some cause insomnia as a side-effect.

· Alcohol – although alcohol is a depressant that often leads to a feeling of sleepiness, it actually suppresses deep sleep (REM), produces sleep fragmentation and can worsen conditions such as snoring and sleep apnea.

· Caffeine and other stimulants – stimulants can affect your ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep you achieve. They should at least be avoided in the evening with 6 hours of bed time.

· Inconsistent sleep patterns – the body likes consistency – a state called homeostasis. Sleeping at different times throughout the week can disrupt your circadian rhythm (basically your body’s internal 24hr clock), which can impact your ability to get enough quality sleep and your ability to recover, irrespective of whether you are getting the right amount of sleep.

Tips for Improving Sleep

Establish stable sleeping patterns – continuing from the last point, establishing a consistent sleeping pattern will improve your sleep quality. If you can get into a groove where you automatically awake at the same time each morning without the need for an alarm clock you will find you will be much more alert and productive, especially in the first few hours of the day. Try to maintain the same pattern on weekends as you do during the week. Additionally, it has been proven that going to bed before midnight leads to much better sleep quality than midnight or later (sleeping from 10pm to 6am is healthier than sleeping from 12am to 8am).

Ensure the room is dark and quiet – a dark room helps promote relaxation and is important for natural melatonin release. Melatonin is a hormone that assists in preparing the body for sleep and is involved in the regulation of the circadian cycle. A quiet room helps ensure you won’t be disturbed or awakened by unnecessary noise. Some may find that complete quiet is too quiet to sleep. For some, a source of white noise such as a fan is more conducive to a relaxing sleep environment.

Temperature – not too warm or too cold. Many people keep their homes at room temperature during the night (70F-72F degrees). Mid-60’s is actually best for optimal sleep.

Proper mattress and pillow – test out your mattress before you buy and spend what you can afford – don’t cheap out. A good mattress lasts for 10 years. Spending $1,000 on a mattress that lasts 10 years equates to $100/year. A miniscule price to pay for improving your sleep. Ensure your pillow is not too firm or too soft. You want enough height and support so that your head is level and straight to prevent neck problems. Also consider placing one between the knees to keep the lower spine straight as well.

Food – avoid eating heavy meals or a large amount of carbohydrates before bed. An overly full stomach can interfere with sleep and excessive carbohydrates can affect GH release. It is important to eat before bed, however, to promote recovery and help prevent catabolism that can otherwise occur. Remember, you are fasting for 8-10 hours while sleeping. This meal before bed should consist of a good amount of quality protein, a healthy fat source and some fibre. My favourite pre-sleep combination is as follows:

Shake containing:

40-50g whey protein isolate

8-10g soluble fibre

5-10g L-glutamine

(mixed with water)

1.5-2 tbsp all–natural peanut butter

Supplements – ZMA (proprietary combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6) is great for promoting muscle relaxation and improving sleep quality. ZMA can be taken nightly before bed on an ongoing basis at the dosage recommended on the label. Supplemental melatonin is a great sleep aid, especially when sleep patterns have been disrupted by things such as travelling between time zones (experiencing jet lag) or shift work. Melatonin can produce an increase in REM sleep and vivid dreaming. It is also a powerful antioxidant. The safe, supplemental dosage range is 0.5mg to 3mg. Although it can safely be taken regularly for short periods of time, it is not entirely clear if the safety extends to long-term use. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is another excellent sleep aid. GABA has a relaxant and slight sedative effect making it ideal before bed to promote sleep. An effective dosage is 2000mg. Combining melatonin and GABA is a powerful combination which multiple studies have shown increases endogenous GH production. If you want to sleep like you’ve never slept before, try all three of the above in the recommended dosages.

Make it a priority – this may mean the occasional sacrifice, but realize the importance of prioritizing sleep. Recognize the impact that staying out all night partying or staying up later than you should to watch reruns of The Incredible Hulk will have on your athletic goals.

Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the importance of sleep. You’ve heard the old tripod analogy. Well for maximizing your athletic performance, consider the three legs to be training, nutrition and sleep.

Kevin Ferrell

Co-owner – CRE8iON Fitness & Wellness