“We’re teaching our players: Sleep is a weapon.” — Sam Ramsden, Dir. of Player Health and Performance, Seattle Seahawks

Have you ever thought of sleep as a secret weapon? Usually we just think that training longer or harder or fine tuning weaknesses will be the key to success. But sleep? Few can deny that sleep is a necessary part of maintaining optimal health.  But especially for athletes, sleep proves to be a crucial element of success.

Why sleep?

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) even goes as far as to classify insufficient sleep as a public health problem, as “an estimated 50-70 million US adults have sleep or wakefulness disorder.”

Research shows that sleep (or lack thereof), especially for athletes, plays a vital role in overall physical and psychological functioning, specifically “reaction times and motor function, motivation, focus, stress regulation, muscle recovery, sprint performance, muscle glycogen, glucose metabolism, memory and learning, injury risk, illness rates, unwanted weight gain” (Fatigue Science). Not to mention overall performance – wins, losses.

One study tracked the Stanford University basketball team for several months. “Players added an average of almost 2 hours of sleep a night. The results? Players increased their speed by 5%. Their free throws were 9% more accurate. They had faster reflexes and felt happier.”

Am I getting enough sleep?

It depends on the person. There are various factors that impact how much sleep you need, but one key element is age. While pregnancy, aging, fitness activity, sleep quality and other factors also play into the equation, an average adult requires about 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Studies show that individuals who consistently sleep 7 hours a night or more perform better on complex mental tasks, compared to individuals who sleep less than 7 hours on a regular basis. Add in fitness, and your body is asking for more.

“Sleep is the time when your body repairs itself,” says Felicia Stoler, RD, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. “If we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t perform well.”

As you do physical activity, your muscles and nervous system break down in the natural course of experiencing stress on the body. Therefore, the more physical activity you do, the more time (aka sleep) it’s going to take to rebuild those systems.

What if I just can’t?

Maybe you can’t increase the amount of sleep you get. As a mom/dad, you have children to care for. As a professional, there is work that needs to be completed. As a friend, there are social gatherings to be attended. But, as an individual, you have a body that needs to be respected and maintained. And for the majority of the population, the amount of time you sleep impacts your daily performance.

We’re not saying that one or two nights of sleep deprivation will be detrimental to your health (though it may make you feel a bit out of whack the next day), but over time if you lack sleep, you can’t expect to see significant athletic improvement.

Treat your body as you’d like to be treated.

To give perspective, Mark Rosekind, PhD, president of Alertness Solutions and a former NASA scientist says, “There are lab studies that show that if you’re an eight-hour sleeper and you get six hours of sleep, that two-hour difference can impact your performance so that it equates to how you would perform if you had a 0.05 blood-alcohol level.”

Simply said – if you can’t expect to perform your best after a few beers, you can’t expect to perform your best on less than a good night’s sleep.

Stay tuned for next month, when we’ll be discussing tips for more restful sleeping.


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