Sleep: the athlete’s secret weapon

It’s an agonising decision faced by morning gym bunnies everywhere. Should you get up for that run at the crack of dawn, or snuggle down to get your full eight hours’?

Now science is waking up to the idea that prioritising sleep has enormous health benefits, whether you’re a professional athlete or just like to keep fit.

Dr Guy Meadows of The Sleep School answers common questions on how sleep can improve sports performance – and explains how keeping fit can help you get a good night’s rest…

Does playing sport and keeping active help you me sleep?

“Yes. It raises metabolism, which increases the production of a brain chemical called adenosine – believed to be responsible for our sleep drive. The more we exercise, the greater our desire for sleep. We fall asleep quicker and experience a deeper, more refreshing rest.”

Why is sleep so important to sportspeople and those of us who like to keep fit?

“We grow new muscle and repair damaged cells in our sleep, so it makes sense that active people should need more. It’s also essential for learning and development – skills learnt during training are made into memories during sleep.

“Good quality sleep also speeds up recovery time. Without it, recovery is slow and you’re more at risk of infection.”

Bensons for beds | Boy holding a basketball

Will having less sleep affect my sporting performance?

“Sleep deprivation reduces mental, emotional and physical performance. A lack of sleep affects reaction time, agility and focus, speed, strength and power. Research into basketball players at Stanford University showed that extending athletes’ sleep time for five weeks improved sprint times by up to 9% and accuracy by 5%. Their mood and energy levels improved, too.”

What’s the best time of day for me to exercise to improve my sleep quality?

“Between 4pm and 6pm is best. This is largely due to our internal body clock, which regulates the timing of our core body temperature. These timings do shift depending on our genetic make-up, with ‘early risers’ exercising best at midday and ‘night owls’ at 8pm.”

What’s the optimum amount of sleep for me to get each night?

“The amount of sleep you need varies depending on what sport or activity you undertake, your training programme and your lifestyle. While eight hours is the standard recommended amount of sleep, optimal sleep levels for athletes are often higher, at around nine or even ten hours plus each night.

“Britain’s Andy Murray considers good sleep to be very important. Speaking to The Mirror about how much sleep he gets, he said: ‘If I don’t sleep 11 to 12 hours [on days when he’s not playing], it’s not right.’”

Bensons for beds | Swimming

How can athletes switch off for bed after training or competitions?

“As you settle for bed, let your thoughts arrive and leave your mind calmly (as if watching clouds pass by in the sky). Make sure you go to bed at the same time each night to train your brain to feel naturally tired at that time. Dim the lights, turn off the TV and lay out your clothes for the next day, to wind down for sleep.”

What are your sleep tips for someone preparing for a big event?

“Go to bed and get up at the same time and avoid alcohol, caffeine, smoking and sugar before bed. Getting the right mattress or bed is key for athletes – it needs to provide the correct level of support for your spine and ensure minimum sleep disturbance.

“When it comes to sleep and recovery, have regular, short naps after training to boost your performance. Between 12pm and 3pm is the optimum time to take one. Limit your nap to 30 minutes.”

Help! I had a bad night’s sleep before a big game…

“Don’t panic! A single night of poor sleep doesn’t impact on physical performance because adrenaline overrides any losses. Just get back to your normal routine after the game.”

Ever wondered how much sleep really affects your weight? Find out here.

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Bensons for Beds are the UK's largest bed retailer with over 270 stores. For over 50 years, we have been dedicated to ensuring customers get a great night's sleep.

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