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August 27, 2018

The power of sleep for improved athletic performance and recovery

Sleep is often the forgotten piece of a training plan. Instead, sleep ought to be a key supplement that any athlete and weekend warrior can integrate into an established training routine.

Sleep regulates stress, food cravings, recovery time, and muscle growth. We know this from decades of research on what happens when you are not getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep is immediately detrimental to athletic performance and recovery and it can take days to catch up.

Below, I outline what happens when you don’t get enough sleep, and the benefits of establishing a healthy sleep routine.

Poor sleep can kill your willpower to eat clean and exercise. One of the effects of not getting enough sleep is an increase in appetite. Your levels of satiety—that natural feeling of being full after a large meal—can also be skewed.

This can lead to craving sugary and unhealthy carbohydrates and fats that you otherwise wouldn’t choose to eat. Frequently indulging in these cravings can offset your fitness goals, lead to weight gain, impair night time muscle growth, and reduce sleep quality. Poor sleep quality also increases the risk of obesity.

Sleep-deprived individuals have consistently been shown to make poor diet choices. This is a common physiological response for the sleep-deprived body.

People who consistently got fewer than 5 hours of sleep each night had significantly different levels of hormones driving hunger (ghrelin) and satiety (leptin) compared to those who slept an average of 8 hours a night.

Having low levels of leptin send signals to the body that put it in starvation mode, making you want to consume more calories than you really need. Meanwhile, ghrelin stimulates appetite. The counteracting effects of these two hormones lead to hunger. Those individuals  who had a lack of good sleep had 16 percent reduction in leptin secretion and a ~ 15 percent increase in ghrelin secretion than those who got a healthy amount of sleep each night.

Second, when you are sleep-deprived, you often don’t have the energy to exercise. Being fatigued at the start of the day can create an excuse to not exercise that day, and feeling chronically tired makes it very difficult to consistently exercise.

The bottom line is that sleep deprivation can lead to unwanted weight gain and a lack of workout intensity that can further harm the quality of your sleep and athletic performance.

Sleep helps with muscle repair. Your body undergoes a number of important recuperative and restorative processes during sleep. These processes include “reset” of nerve cells in the brain, clearance of toxic waste, and most importantly for athletes, tissue repair, muscle growth, and the release of anabolic hormones.

Additionally, a majority of anabolic hormone release occurs at night, especially during the deepest stages of sleep. The nighttime release of growth hormone and testosterone aid in tissue repair, muscle growth, and anti-inflammation.

Falling and staying asleep is instrumental in allowing your body to take full advantage of all the tools it has to physiologically recharge and renew itself at night. If you need to incorporate a wind down routine in preparation for sleep, approach it as you would your cool down routine.

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For example, after an intense workout, you don’t just walk out of the gym. Instead, you may foam roll, stretch, or take a nutrient supplement. A nightly wind down routine works in a similar fashion. This can involve anything relaxing to you in the absence of light and noise. Examples include herbal tea, a bath, reading a chapter from a book, or simple activities to help quiet the mind, induce a meditative-state, and signal to the brain and body that it’s time for bed.

Overnight heart rate and oxygen levels impact recovery. Even in top athletes at the peak of their fitness, sleep-disordered breathing can occur. The culprit is usually the development of thick neck and pectoral muscles that compress on the trachea and chest. About 80 percent of people with this condition don’t even know they have it. If left untreated, the consequences can be very serious.

Changes in breathing, oxygen levels, and heart rate naturally occur when you sleep. While having a slight fluctuation in heart rate during sleep is normal, it is important to understand the causes of more noticeable spikes in your heart’s number of beats per minute.

When irregular breathing patterns occur during sleep, the heart rate rapidly increases and activates a physiological stress response. Your body believes that it is not getting proper oxygen supply because it isn’t pumping blood fast enough; much like during the first few minutes of exercise.

But this time, you’re not exercising—you’re asleep, and you’re not breathing. The heart wants to compensate for this deficit in oxygen and pumps faster and faster, but the blood moving through your circulation is de-oxygenated and isn’t helping you out very much. As a result, your brain’s panic mode is triggered, and it rouses you out of your sleep.

In a matter of seconds, your heart pulse is spiking, you wake up, and gasp for breath. In doing so, you take a big gulp of air whether you are conscious of the experience or not. After this survival response, your body has the oxygen it needs, and your pulse goes down again. But the damage has been done: your heart rate has spiked unnecessarily and your oxygen levels are unstabilized. In severe cases, this can happen close to a hundred times a night.

Maximizing recovery time during sleep allows oxygen to effectively travel through the body and ensure that hormones are regulated for tissue repair and muscle growth.

Here are some quick tips to improve your sleep recovery.

  • Establish an effective and consistent nightly wind down routine free of light and low in intensity
  • Eliminate caffeine intake after lunchtime
  • Experiment with a blackout eye mask if you’re prone to waking up too early
  • Eliminate alcohol at least 4 hours before bed
  • Limit over-the-counter sleeping pill usage

There’s a lot of opportunity in maximizing the benefits of proper sleep and what it can mean for performance and recovery. Enhancing your athletic performance takes a combination of commitment, talent, and setting yourself up for success. The small edges you attain can add up over time, and carving out space for a healthy sleep routine can work wonders for your fitness goals.

CPT Allison Brager, PhD is a neurobiologist serving as an active duty Army officer with expertise in sleep and chronobiology. She currently serves as a sleep scientist in the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the largest and most diverse biomedical sleep research laboratory in the Department of Defense. She sits on the Federal Fatigue Management Working Group and has contributed to Army Doctrine on Holistic Health and Fitness through the Office of the Surgeon General. She consults with US Olympic, big-time collegiate, and professional sporting teams. CPT Brager recently received eight golds at the Gay Olympics in Paris, France, is an active competitor in Crossfit® and former Reebok Crossfit® Games team athlete, has coached NCAA decathletes and pole-vaulters, and a four-year varsity letterman in Division 1 Track and Field at Brown University.