I’ve dubbed this year my Year of Rest, but I’m finding I’m not all that good at resting. My body is so used to running at full-throttle all the time that I’m finding it hard to power down. It’s going to take some practice to get into the habit of allowing myself the rest I need. I’ve been researching sleep tips for athletes to help me rest better.
Sleep Tips for Athletes
You all know I love research and learning, so I decided to help myself prioritize my need for sleep by researching and reminding myself of all the benefits that come from getting a healthy night’s sleep.
Understanding Sleep Cycles
Before you can understand the benefits of a healthy night’s sleep, you need to understand how sleep itself works. Prior to the 1920s, scientists thought that the brain was inactive during sleep. It was literally thought that the brain shut off at night while we were sleeping only to turn on again come morning. It was only with the invention of the EEG that scientists discovered that sleep had stages cycled each night and that during certain stages the brain was very active.
The first stage of sleep is a time of being almost “in between” sleep and awake. It’s very easy to be awakened during this time. This is also when you are most likely to have a hypnagogic jerk – that feeling of falling that sometimes happens. Only about 5% of sleep happens in this stage.
The second stage of sleep is when your heart rate drops, the core temperature lowers, breathing slows down, and your muscles are able to fully relax. Sleep is deep enough at this point that normal sounds will not wake the sleeper.
About 50% of sleep happens in this stage.
The third stage of sleep is known as deep sleep. During this time you’re the least responsive to outside stimuli. Your heart rate, core temperature, and breathing are at their lowest rates and muscles are at their most relaxed state. This stage represents about 20% of total sleep.
The final sleep stage is known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. It’s not completely known why the eyes move during this stage of sleep, but scientists think it may have something to do with dreaming. When looking at brain activity, this stage of sleep closely resembles wake brain waves.
Your heart rate, breathing rate, and core temperature generally raises during REM sleep. REM sleep is thought to be the time where our brain processes new things we have learned. Thus, children have a lot more time spent in REM sleep and adults will show longer than average REM times on days when they have learned something complex.
Benefits of Sleep
During these four stages of sleep, our bodies are busy doing a lot of restoration. When you’re tempted to stay up a little longer to accomplish one more thing, remember these benefits to help you make the right choice – the choice to rest!
- Memory Improvement – Sleep triggers changes in the brain that strengthen the connections between brain cells, allowing information to be transferred to different areas of the brain more easily. source
- Live Longer – studies show that people who regularly sleep less than 7 hours per night (and often less than 5 hours) have a 12 percent greater risk of dying than those that sleep 7-8 hours a night. source
- Reduce Inflammation – A 2010 study has shown that people who got less than 6 hours of sleep has greater instances of C-reactive protein in their bloodstream, which indicates greater incidence of heart attack risk. source
- Improve Athleticism – A Stanford study showed that college football players who slept 10 hours a night were able to improve their sprint time, plus reported more energy and stamina. source
- Maintain a Healthy Weight – Sleep and metabolism are controlled by the same area of the brain. Being sleepy causes certain hormones to rise in your bloodstream, in turn causing an increase in appetite. source
- Combat Depression – While it’s difficult to know if depression triggers insomnia or insomnia triggers depression, research shows they often go hand in hand. Improvement in one area generally leads to improvement in the other as well.
Beyond these, sleep deprivation can lead to decreased performance, stressed relationships, poor quality of life, increased occurrence of injuries, and great risk of auto accidents.
Sleep Tips for Athletes
It’s easy to see that sleep is important. It’s not always so easy to actually make sleep a priority. Or if we do make it a priority, sometimes it’s hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Here are some tips to help improve your sleep experience:
- Maintain a consistent schedule. Even on weekends, try to get to bed and wake up around the same time.
- Create a before bed routine. In the same way that a bedtime routine is helpful to get children to sleep, adult bodies can be triggered in the same way. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. A relaxing cup of tea, a short stretching routine, or reading for a few minutes all work.
- Exercise. Make sure your body is tired enough to fall asleep easily. Be careful exercising too close to bedtime though – the increased heartrate can make it more difficult.
- Check your sleep environment. Make sure the room is dark, cool, and quiet. Invest in darkening shades, a fan, earplugs, or a sound machine if you need the extra help.
- Avoid electronics. I know it’s hard, but try to avoid all electronic use for at least 30 minutes before bedtime. The brightness of the screen decreases the production of melatonin, which triggers our sleep.
- Invest in a quality mattress. A good mattress should last 9 to 10 years. If it’s been a while since you replaced your mattress and your sleep problems are new, that could be the cause.
Don’t believe me? Check out this cool infographic: