There’s a new edge in sports that athletes are exploiting to improve their performance. And it’s so simple it may surprise you.
At an early age, athletes are trained to find their competitive advantage over their opponents. Most of this is discovered through coaching and practice, but there are other methods athletes are using to get faster, stronger, and smarter. Recently this has manifest itself in sports analytics, which is using data and analysis to improve athletic performance.
But now athletes are getting back to basics and discovering a tried and true solution to vastly improve their performance – sleep. And if it works for them, you can be assured that no matter how physically active you are, it’ll work for you too.
Why is Sleep Important for Athletic Performance?
Sleep science has become a larger part in sports at every level, from school-age children to professional athletes. Professional teams are investing heavily in everything from mobile apps, wearable technology (such as Jawbone and Fitbit bands), sleep specialists and consultants that travel with teams, and even specialized mattresses and pillows to enhance sleep.
According to Dr. Charles Czeisler, a tenured professor and Director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, sleep improves your body’s ability to function. Czeisler often consults athletes and coaches in the National Basketball Association (NBA), but his clientele extends to NASA and the Secret Service. In these circles he’s commonly referred to as the Sleep Doctor.
Athletes by nature, especially those in the professional ranks, simply do not get enough sleep. Most games finish late in the evening, followed by press conferences, and then travel to the next location. All of this, combined with physical and mental exertion of competing, takes a considerable toll on the athlete.
In order to combat this problem, professional sports teams have reached out to Czeisler, the Sleep Doctor, for help. Czeisler first NBA client was the Portland Trail Blazers. They hired Czeisler in 2009 to improve the team’s sleep habits. What he observed shocked him. When the Blazers had had back-to-back games, players and coaches on the team were getting less than two or three hours of sleep a night, some of which was expected to be on the plane, traveling to the next destination.
Not only are athletes not sleeping enough, but they’ve been taught that they don’t need a lot of sleep. They even wear it as a badge of honor, as if less sleep makes them a harder worker and a better athlete, which simply isn’t true according to research.
However, that doesn’t stop stories being told of athletes such as Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, gambling all night and still scoring 50 points in a game the next day. Sleep deprivation in sports is the stuff of modern-day athletic folklore.
LeBron James, widely considered the best current basketball player on the planet, has said that sleep isn’t considered a priority.
“I just felt like sleep wasn’t important and the only thing that mattered to me was how I was going to try to get back up there and win,” James said to CBS Sports. And even when James had time to sleep, getting to sleep proved difficult.
“It was very difficult to sleep, because my mind was racing so much that it didn’t allow me to go at ease. This game right here, it does stuff to your mind,” said James.
Czeisler said that athletes performing while sleep deprived is like asking them to “play with one hand tied behind their back. It’s making them do something we know degrades their reaction time, their ability to take in their training, to get the most benefit out of it. They spend all this time practicing but never get to sleep.
When athletes sleep better, their overall health will improve. This also includes improving cognitive ability increasing metabolism, and enhancing their immune systems, which is very important for athletes trying to limit the potential for serious injury.
How Can Athletes Sleep Better?
In spite of all the new technology and emphasis on sleep regarding athletic performance, the best method for improving sleep is to simply find time to sleep. Most athletes do this through naps, which can help. However, Czeisler states that sleep is most important after an athletic event for improving your cognitive ability to perform.
“Interestingly, if you don’t sleep the night after training, then even if you sleep the next night or the next night, you never learn.”
Czeisler is referring to memory consolidation that occurs during sleep. If athletes do not get enough sleep, or more importantly, quality sleep, memory consolidation will not happen, and will prevent memory recall when athletes are awake.
This can be seen in other studies, such as a 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study of mice navigating a maze. Researchers studied the brains of mice after performing the maze run and discovered as the mice slept, they replayed the experiences of the maze. This resulted in improved performance each following time through the maze.
How to Improve Sleep
Czeisler has found that when working with a new team, the first thing he suggests is canceling early morning flights and practices. Although this goes against old-school sports wisdom, where athletes are expected to sleep less, work harder, and just be tough, sleeping more is better than an extra practice session.
Even LeBron James agrees. “Sleep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery. And it’s very tough with our schedule. Our schedule keeps us up late at night, and most of the time it wakes us up early in the morning. There’s no better recovery than sleep.”
While most of us aren’t performing to the level of LeBron James or other professional athletes, we can take steps to make sure we get enough sleep, whether recovering from playing in our recreational softball league, a 5K race, or simply a day trying to keep up with our own children.
For example, if your athletic event ends in the evening, make sure you take the necessary steps afterwards to cool down and relax. Winding down is very important after physical activity. Examine your cool down routine and make sure you follow an effective bedtime routine to enhance your sleep.
Sometimes in spite of all our efforts to enhance our sleep, we may be fighting against sleep disorders that cannot simply be overcome without professional help. If you feel tired throughout the day or believe there are other reasons you are not sleeping well, visit your local sleep specialist for help. They will examine your sleep habits and help you get the sleep you deserve.
If you live in Alaska and would like to speak with a sleep specialist, please click on the banner below.