We spend one-third of our lives sleeping. Our bodies and brains rely on sleep to function. But if there is one facet of the fitness that we athletes tend to sacrifice, it’s sleep and recovery.
Skimping on much needed Zs can halt fitness progress, increase your risk for injury in the gym or on the road, and hinder critical body processes. However often athletes are told to prioritize sleep, it’s the first thing we sacrifice during a busy work week.
So I’m laying it all out for you in the hopes of inspiring a few of you to find a little extra snooze time. Here’s everything you need to know about sleep as an athlete.
The worst of sleep deprivation
Everyone how great it feels waking up after a full night of sleep. Still, we rarely want to go to bed early enough to make it happen. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a third of all working Americans get six hours or fewer of sleep a night when most of us need seven to nine hours to function at our full potential.
It’s important to point out that a chronically sleep deprived body acts like an intoxicated body, meaning a third of Americans make day-to-day decisions as if they were impaired. From a fitness standpoint, sleep deprivation is correlated to increased body fat percentage, more issues with insulin sensitivity, and even a disproportionate decrease in lean muscle mass when eating a caloric deficit when compared with a population that gets at least seven hours a night.
We’re better people with an extra hour in bed
The benefits of sleep outdo any superfood or workout regimen.
First, and probably most importantly, adequate sleep makes us more resilient to everyday stress. When you’re well-rested, it’s easier to handle the demanding boss, squeezing a workout in within a busy schedule or dealing with unruly kids. The less stress you feel, the less of the stress hormone cortisol is pumped into your system. Lack of cortisol makes you feel prepared for the next day’s stresses, inside and outside the gym.
Sleep significantly reduces your risk of catching a cold and other circulating illnesses. Less sick days at work mean a more productive self and less unplanned rest days in your training plan.
Sleep triggers the release of HGH or the human growth hormone, which according to World Anti-Doping Agency, is one of the most sought out after performance enhancing drugs (PED). Beyond hormonal benefits that aid in athletic performance, adequate sleep increases cognitive function and reaction time, therefore, boosting your potential.
Unfortunately, all sleep is not created equal. Some stages of sleep leave you feeling refreshed and ready for the day while some leave you feeling like you got hit by a bus.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep are both critical. But it’s hard to function when you get one without the other and your mood depends on which form of sleep you’re in when you wake up.
According to studies, during the deep stages of NREM, the body repairs itself from the day’s wear and tear. It regenerates tissues broken down in workouts, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system.
When your body kicks into REM sleep towards the end of the night, your brain has increased activity and leads to dreaming, while your body is mostly unresponsive. Some studies say that REM is most important for restoring brain functions but is much harder to wake up from.
Turn off the screen
Outside stimuli, our own activity causes our body to produce certain hormones at certain times to prepare for the required functions at that time, either exercise or rest. Before the invention of artificial lighting, sunlight triggered hormones that let our bodies know when to sleep and when to work. Instead, we use electricity, alarm clocks, computer screens, smartphone screens and all other sorts of outside stimuli which fundamentally confuses our natural sleeping schedule.
Two easy things you can do to maximize sleep
We have a rule in our house: no smartphones after 8 p.m. It’s tough but worth it to put the smartphone and laptop away a couple of hours before bed. By avoiding screens before I hit the hay, I’m allowing hormones like melatonin to kick in, making it easier to fall asleep.
To start getting more sleep, sleep must become the priority. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed enough to work deep into the night but by continually scheduling, planning and evaluating how your time is spent after work, it’s easy to allot that extra hour. Personally, I set a hard time that I have to be in bed, no matter what. If I’m up for a 6:30 a.m. workout, I’m in bed by 9 p.m. regardless of what stresses may tempt me to work through the night.