We’re in the week leading up to the SuperBowl.
Advertisers are scrambling to get their campaigns finished, Justin Timberlake is trying his best not to be the cause of any more ‘wardrobe malfunctions’, and the players are preparing for the biggest game of the season.
As we get closer to the big day, much has been talked about the routines of players, and how teams can get the most out of their star performers. On top of the usual diet and exercise regimes, sleep plays a vital role in the performance of athletes. Below we explore why the world’s top sports stars have turned to getting some shut-eye before games, to gain an edge.
How much sleep do athletes need?
To kick things off, athletes need more sleep than the normal person. For us ‘normal people’, doctors say we should get between 7-9 hours sleep per night - although to be honest, we’re usually at the lower end of that scale. Now for athletes, and we mean athletes - Sunday League football doesn’t count, they need about an hour more. Put simply, they’re working their bodies harder which means they need ‘more’ to sustain it, including calories and sleep.
Why is sleep important for athletes
A few weeks back, we asked ‘Why is sleep important?’ and shared the different stages your body goes through when you sleep. As the body nears stage 3 and the REM (rapid eye movement) stage, muscles relax and hormones are released that are essential for muscle repair.
The Fortius Sport Blog explains that the “Growth hormone, or sometimes known as HGH, is an important part of the body’s endocrine system. It is essential for muscle repair, muscle building, bone growth and promoting the oxidization of fats. This is critical for maintaining a certain standard of performance throughout your athletic career.”
Combined, stage 3 and REM only lasts for around 30-40 minutes of your sleep. Therefore, if an athlete sleeps for a longer period of time, they’re increasing the amount of time they spend in each of these stages, or increasing the amount of cycles per nights’ sleep.
Sleep can improve muscle memory
Learning and memory is improved when athletes improve their sleeping routines. Muscle memory is a term we’re all aware of, but probably don’t fully understand. What this refers to is the consolidation of memories, which only occurs in the later stages of sleep.
Getting to sleep earlier means that athletes are improving their chances of learning the latest skills, drills or practices, and actually retaining the memory of how to perform long-term.
Sleep can improve athlete’s reaction times
A split second can make a world of difference in sport. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Usain Bolt had a reaction time of 0.155 seconds, and won the 100m final by just 0.08s. Tiny margins, that have the biggest impact.
There have been several studies carried out on how fatigue can affect reaction times. Research by Occupational and Environmental Medicine shows that pulling an all nighter has nearly the same effect on reaction time as drinking alcohol - both can increase reaction times by half.
Stanford University put this to the test, studying a basketball team for several months to see whether increasing the amount of sleep you get impacts performance. Over these months, they increased their sleep by around 2 hours, and saw some amazing results. WebMD shows that they increased their speed by 5%, and free throws were 9% more accurate. Their mood improved, felt happier, and had faster reflexes.
How can athletes get a better sleep
Sometimes there’s no getting around a disturbed sleep - especially when there’s a newborn around! However, in the majority of cases the first think to check is your environment.
Turn down the temperature. Research shows that just over 18°C is the ideal temperature - any warmer and you can disrupt the natural changes in temperature that your body goes through in each stage of the sleeping cycle.
Turn down the lights. Reducing the brightness of your surroundings helps get your body ready to sleep by producing melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep and wake cycles. Also, it’d be great if you could learn to put your phone down an hour or two before bed. Your screen gives out a blue-y light, which can play havoc with the creation of melatonin. By putting your phone away (or making sure you turn a feature like ‘Night Shift’ on), you’re helping your body get ready to sleep. Plus, it’d probably stop your other half complaining that you’re always on your phone, or is that just us?
Invest in a mattress that supports you. There’s more to getting a new mattress than just buying a new model, especially in the sporting world. Nick Littlehales, described by Wikipedia as ‘the leading elite sport sleep coach to the biggest names in the sporting world’.
Nick tells you to “Check your mattress, pillow and bedding is giving the right support. Your mattress should take your body shape and weight easily – almost as if you don’t need a pillow,” says Nick. “Get someone to analyse you lying on the bare mattress, in a foetal position on your non-dominant side (so if you’re right handed, lie on your left side). This is the natural sleeping position. If there is a clear gap of five centimetres or more between your head and mattress, or you feel your head dropping on to the mattress, then it could be too firm. Head raised out of line? The mattress may be too soft.”
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