“The average athlete probably needs eight to nine hours of sleep, given their physical demands,” Czeisler says, and even more if you can get it. “I wish I could say there’s a shortcut, but if you are going to be a professional athlete, you need to pay careful attention to sleep.”
Research from Stanfords Sleep Clinic showed just how much impact more sleep can have on athletes. The researchers looked at a basketball team who were asked to extend their sleep to at least 10 hours a night for a period of 5-7 weeks. At the end the study, the players ran faster sprints, increased their shooting percentage and improved their reaction time by statistically significant margins. These are amazing changes from simply sleeping more. A single all-nighter, or a week spent getting just four hours of sleep a night, can make one’s reaction time nearly three times slower. You can see how this could affect everyone.
What happens when we sleep?
Human sleep follows a cycle that lasts about 90 minutes. During this time, hormones are released and information-processing takes place to restore the body and mind. The longer we sleep, the more cycles we complete.
Early on in a night of sleep, the cycles are dominated by deep, slow-wave sleep. The blood supply to the muscles increases and human growth hormone is naturally released during this phase, allowing the body to grow and repair. New information learned that day, is rehearsed by the mind and organized during this time. As the night goes on, the cycles shift to longer and longer periods of rapid-eye movement sleep. We dream during REM sleep, the phase in which new skills and strategies are integrated with information previously learned, our existing knowledge.
If sleep is cut short, testosterone levels don’t fully replenish, muscles don’t have as much time to build and recover, and the consolidation of new information into long-term memory is cut short. Jim Maas, a retired Cornell professor and the person who coined the term “power nap”, says the final quarter of an eight-hour night of sleep, is when the cycles include the greatest frequency of sleep spindles, bursts of brain activity in the motor cortex that play a role in forging new muscle memories from that day’s activities.
How to get better sleep
These NFL teams go to great lengths to improve sleep, especially when travelling for games. This includes; ideal hydration levels, ideal room temperatures, using blue light blocking glasses at night, no caffeine after 2pm, no alcohol within 3 hours of sleep and no TV, phone etc 1 hour before bed.
They also used a device called a litebook, which is a device that can help reset circadian rhythms. When waking in different time zones, the litebook is used to shine a 10,000 lux white light from an angle onto your retinas (you never look directly into the light). This light helps reset the circadian rhythm according to the new time zone. The image to the right is a litebook. Check out their website here.
These teams also have dark rooms installed in their practice facilities so players can take naps. In fact some teams have players fill out questionnaires to see how well they slept the night before.
Several of the things the NFL teams have employed can be easily used in your own home. For example, no caffeine, no alcohol 3 hours before bed, no TV etc 1 hour before bed. The litebook, however, may be a step too far for most people, but I would interested in trying it next time I have to change time zones.
You can also get better sleep by making sure you have a good pillow, bed and sleep in a good position. I have written a blog series on this last year. Make sure you check them out here and here.
When you see professional sports teams putting this much emphasis on sleep, it makes sense that maybe we should also be putting more emphasis on getting enough quality sleep ourselves. Try implementing a few of the ideas mentioned above, get your 8 hours sleep and your body will thank you for it. I know I will be trying them.