While most athletes know that training and practice improve your performance, and even that nutrition plays a key role, there are still many students who underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. One of my favorite coaches many years ago had a great saying; “You don’t get stronger by training, you get stronger by resting AFTER you train”. This statement has scientific evidence behind it- our bodies react to training by rebuilding stronger after stressing ourselves, but that rebuilding process requires adequate rest to be effective.
Some studies estimate that up to a quarter of elite athletes suffer sleep disturbances significant enough to affect performance. When juggling school responsibilities, time off for other activities, and heavy training, it is easy to let other things take the place of the rest time we need to let our bodies recover.
So how much sleep do you need? The answer is different for every individual, but in high school, there is good consensus that 8-9 hrs of sleep a night is recommended. More and more technology is available to see how much and what quality of sleep we get, but ultimately these devices don’t substitute for sensible sleep patterns, and I have even encountered patients who get so anxious over their tech sleep data that it actually keeps them from falling asleep!
When discussing sleep with athletes, I recommend some key “sleep hygiene” principles that are highly effective to ensure you are able to fall asleep and get the rest you need.
Avoid screens in bed. Leave the phone/tablet/laptop/TV out of the bedroom! Shutting off your electronics at least 15 minutes (30 is better) prior to bedtime allows your brain to wind down and decompress from a full day of input.
Avoid caffeine after noon. While everyone metabolizes caffeine at different rates, some individuals still have it in their system 14 hrs after eating or drinking it. Look out for hidden caffeine in energy drinks and stick to water instead.
Avoid daytime naps. If you are truly sleep-deprived and need a nap, keep it to 20 minutes, and try to do it only before noon. Setting up a daytime napping habit often leads to more difficulty falling asleep and perpetuating a cycle of fatigue.
Plan ahead. If you know that you have an early morning double-sessions practice, give yourself an early bedtime target so that you are not dragging yourself out of bed and suffering the next day. Likewise good academic planning will prevent the need to pull an all-nighter to get an assignment or project done.
Avoid big meals right before bed. Eating a heavy meal will often keep you from falling asleep easily.
Make your sleep area peaceful and comfortable. Dim lights, a quiet environment, and limited distractions make for easier and better sleep. While this is not always feasible in a dorm or training facility, work with what you have to make it as calm and quiet as possible.
Athletes who are using all of the above strategies and who are still struggling with chronic sleep issues may need to speak with their physician about other possible reasons for their sleep problems- there are many out there and a targeted individual plan developed by you and your doctor may help significantly.
So get out there and be a better athlete…….by sleeping!