Why Athletes Need More Sleep

why athletes need more sleep

Sleep is one of those things that is so important and relatively easy to do for yourself, yet so very neglected. We scroll Facebook until it's an hour past our bedtime and wake up early feeling like zombies. We haul our sorry butts out of bed at some insane hour to get our runs in or make it to the gym before we go off to work only to be left wondering why we don't feel energized after a workout. I think sleep is something that should be added into all training plans because it's so important for recovering from the physical stress of a workout. It's crazy that most athletes are willing to get up at the crack of dawn to get a workout in, but are not willing to sacrifice 30 minutes of social media scrolling or TV watching in order to get to sleep earlier.

Don't worry, I am also guilty of these sleep transgressions on occasion, but I regularly get at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night (most of the time I get more).

I posted and article on Facebook a couple of weeks ago about how getting less than 6 hours of sleep at night was just as bad as getting no sleep. The other thing that this article brings to light is that we have no idea how much sleep we are getting, which is part of the problem. On average people overestimate their sleep by almost an hour. So if you think you're getting seven hours of sleep each night, you are probably getting closer to six. How do I know that I sleep for at least 7.5 hours every night? I wear an activity tracker that also tracks my sleep (this one, if you're curious). 

Why sleep is important for athletes

A study done at Stanford found that athletes who increased their sleep times decreased their sprint times and increased their basketball free throw and three-point shots. They also noted that although they estimated that they were sleeping 10+ hour each night, when they started tracking their sleep it was only about 6.5 - 7 hours each night.

Sleep is when your brain assimilates the information it has gathered throughout the day and "resets" itself. You also build and repair muscle, as well as synthesize protein and boost your immune system while you sleep. It's kind of like the hitting the reset button each night.

Lack of sleep can cause you to feel hungrier (eating to stay awake, anyone?) and cause your body to be less effective at converting carbs into glycogen which can affect your overall athletic performance, especially for endurance athletes and runners.

How much sleep do we need?

Knowing exactly how much sleep we need is hard to figure out. However, a good rule is that everyone needs between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night. As an athlete, you should add 1 minute of sleep for every mile you run for the week (or 1 minute for approximately every  2-5 miles of biking).

A good way to figure out your sweet spot for sleep is while you're on vacation. On the second or third day of your trip (when you're relaxed and adapted to whatever new timezone you're in), see how long you sleep on your own without an alarm clock. That should determine much sleep you need to aim to get each night. If the number is a big variation from how much sleep you get when you're not on vacation, try increasing your sleep a little at a time when you get home. Go to bed 15 minutes earlier and set your alarm 10 minutes later. You should certainly aim to get as much sleep as you need, but my rule is that as long as my weekly average is at my target, I'm good.

How to sleep better:

Imagine working a 12 hour shift catching babies, coming home exhausted, inhaling your dinner so you can get as much sleep as possible before going back and doing it all again the next day, and then going to bed and only sleeping for 3 or 4 hours before waking up fatigued and frustrated at 2am.

I played this game for several months until I found some simple and natural things that helped me sleep much better.  Yes I got a new, less stressful job, but I was sleeping better with these things even before that.

Here are some super simple things that will help you sleep better tonight!

  • Magnesium - Magnesium is a mineral that is found in many foods. It a vital component of over 300 enzymes in the human body and plays an important role in hydration, muscle relaxation, and energy production. Having adequate levels of magnesium in your body does not guarantee that you will quickly fall into a deep blissful sleep, but I can assure you that if you are deficient in magnesium, you will definitely have trouble sleeping. The problem is that most people are deficient in magnesium because not only are they not eating the foods that it's found in (mostly nuts and green leafy vegetables) but the body does not absorb it well in the digestive tract. Anywhere from 20% to 50% of ingested magnesium is absorbed by the body. So if you do not have adequate intake and your body does not absorb it well…that sounds like a recipe for a deficiency to me! Be aware that too much magnesium can cause some undesired GI side effects (many laxatives are magnesium salts), and some people are more sensitive and more prone to these side effects than others. Also your magnesium should be in the form of citrate, ascorbate, or glycinate, most of which are easy to find in the vitamin section of the grocery store. Magnesium can also be found in transdermal sprays and can be absorbed from an epsom salt bath. I recently started using Natural Calm as my magnesium supplement and I like it much better than a pill.

  • Bedtime tea - Another thing that I discovered to help me get a long night of restful sleep is tea. I started with Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea and now use Yogi Bedtime tea. The only reason I switched was the Yogi tea was on sale at my grocery store and I decided that I liked the flavor better. I'm 95% sure that this helps via the placebo effect, but I really don't care. I also think that creating the bedtime routine of drinking a cup of tea has helped to signal to my body that we are winding down and going to bed. There is a version of the Sleepytime tea that has valerian root in it, which will definitely make you sleepy. Valerian root is a plant that has been shown to cause drowsiness and can help with anxiety (another reason why people don't sleep).

  • Essential oils - You can read the post I wrote about using essential oils to help with sleep here. If you need a simple place to start, try rubbing some lavender oil on the bottoms of your feet before you get in bed. I know that I was shocked and amazed when I realized how well this works. The first night I thought it was a fluke...but by the fifth night, I knew it was legit! You can request a free sample of oils from me if you would like to try them!

  • Quality over quantity - I know I just got done telling you to sleep more, but if that's causing you to stress, then stop worrying about how much sleep you are getting and try to get better quality sleep. Rather than saying to yourself I'll go to bed earlier tonight, pick a bedtime. Most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, so if you get up at 6:00am, set your bedtime for 10:00pm.

  • Put down your phone and pick up a book - Don't let your phone be the last thing you touch. Instead, spend (at least) the last 10 minutes before you go to sleep reading a book. I find that I check my phone one last time and suddenly 20 minutes has passed, but if I pick up my book and start reading, I'm often asleep in 10 or 15 minutes.

  • Get up - If you really can't go to sleep, get up and do something else. Laying awake in bed confuses your brain into thinking that it's ok to be awake in bed. If you get up and do something else for at least 15 minutes (reading or just sitting somewhere else) you can retrain your brain to know that when you get into bed, it's time for sleep. If I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, I take my Kindle and my blanket and move to the couch. Most of the time I fall back asleep within 30 minutes. If I don't, at least I got to read instead of tossing and turning and worrying about sleep!

Generally, when it comes to sleep, more is better. More sleep = better training which is a win-win!

What helps you get to sleep? Do you have trouble getting enough sleep?