- Create a routine and stick to it
- Optimize conditions for sleep
- Bedroom equipment
- Avoid technology and blue light exposure before bed
- Increase bright light exposure during the day
- Avoid caffeine in the evening
- Maintain a relaxed state before bed
- About the Author
Sleep is a homeostatically controlled behaviour resulting in reduced movement and sensory responsiveness (1). Although the true function of why humans sleep remains unclear, there is no doubt of its importance for human cognitive and physiological function (8).
Typically, to feel refreshed and energetic upon waking up most adults require approximately 8 hours of sleep (16). It is suggested that athletes may even require between 9 to 12 hours of sleep to allow for adequate recovery from training sessions (2). Sleep deprivation has many consequences for humans and restricts cognitive function, influences mood, increases daytime tiredness and impairs learning and memory tasks (13).
With regards to athletic performance, studies have shown the detrimental effect poor sleep quality can have on physical performance, hindering power, strength and cardiovascular function in addition to impairing psychomotor tasks such as reaction time, decision making and skills requiring precision and accuracy (2).
Therefore, the aim of this blog is to outline eight practical tips that a coach can reinforce to athletes, positively influencing athlete sleep habits.
1. Create a sleep routine and stick to it
Establish a sleep and wake time and stick to it, even on weekends if possible, especially when competition is due to take place. Irregular sleeping patterns affect the circadian rhythm and melatonin levels which signal the brain to sleep (5).
Once a routine is established, falling asleep at night can become quicker and easier (9). Being consistent with a sleep schedule will reduce tiredness and help the body sync with its essential physiological patterns (9). Maintaining a routine every night in the hour leading up to sleep will help reinforce the signals to the body that it is time to go to bed (9).
2. Optimise conditions for sleep
Keeping the room cool, quiet, and dark creates an environment that makes it easier to sleep (9). External distractions such as noise, light, and temperature can harm sleep hygiene (3).
By eliminating excess noise and artificial light, the bedroom can become an enjoyable place to get high-quality, deep sleep (11). This can be further promoted by avoiding an increase in room and body temperature, which can decrease sleep quality and can lead to wakefulness (14). Although room temperature can be a personal preference and be influenced by the time of year, 18 °C is recommended (2).
3. Bedroom equipment
Bed quality can also affect sleep. Having an appropriate mattress and pillow is especially important for athletes as aches and soreness are part and parcel of sport and training. Jacobson et al. (2002) (10) found quality bed mattresses reduced pain in muscles and stiffness in joints as well as improving overall sleep quality by over 60 %.
To maintain this, a bed mattress should be changed approximately every 5-8 years (10). Making a small investment in eyeshades or blackout curtains to block out any excess light is also a worthwhile investment (9). When waking up in the morning, being quick to open curtains lets light into the room, which can act as a signal to the body that it is time to wake up (9).
Napping can be extremely beneficial for athletes who are routinely waking up early for training sessions and can counteract some of the negative effects of poor sleep hygiene (9). When planned correctly, naps can help athletes work more efficiently (9). Waterhouse et al. (2007) (18) found a 30-minute nap improved 20m sprint performance compared to no nap with athletes who only experienced four hours of sleep the night before.
Napping can reduce sleepiness and can be beneficial before a session involving skills and tactics (15). However, napping too close to bedtime or beyond a duration of 30-minutes may interfere with regular sleep (9).
5. Avoid technology and blue light exposure before bed
Try to avoid watching TV or using laptops and mobile phones an hour before sleeping and turn to calm, relaxing activities instead (9). Technological devices such as smartphones and laptops expose blue light, which can confuse the brain as this is usually a sign that it’s daytime, resulting in reducing the hormones that promote relaxation and deep sleep (7).
If technological devices cannot be avoided in the evening time, then certain strategies can be taken to minimize the effect of blue light such as altering brightness levels on devices, applying night mode features or apps on devices and wearing glasses that block blue light (7).
6. Increase bright light exposure during the day
The human body has a natural body clock known as its circadian rhythm (16). Natural sunlight or bright light during the day helps your body recognize it’s daytime and not sleep (16).
Two hours of bright light exposure during the day have been shown to improve sleep duration and quality (6) and a circadian rhythm that is adjusted to evenings will help athletes perform to their best (17). Furthermore, taking training sessions outside during the daytime if possible is an effective way to help keep athletes’ circadian rhythm in tune.
7. Avoid caffeine in the evening
Consuming caffeine before bed can negatively affect the quality of sleep (9). Caffeine consumption six hours before sleep can reduce sleep quality due to its stimulation of the nervous system, which may prevent the ability to relax (4) and as such, avoiding items that contain caffeine such as coffees, teas, energy drinks, and soda late at night is paramount.
Alcohol can also harm sleep and should be consumed in moderation (9).
8. Maintain a relaxed state before bed
It can be very common for athletes to be worried about general life stressors or upcoming competitions, especially the night before, which has the potential to negatively impact sleep (2).
Creating a pre-sleep routine to help enter a relaxed state before bed is an effective remedy, which should be specific to the individual and the stressor. Common relaxation modalities such as listening to relaxing music, reading a book, deep breathing, and visualization may aid relaxation (9).
For athletes, it could be beneficial to tie in recovery strategies close to sleep time (e.g. massage and bathing), which have relaxation benefits (9). Also, keeping a diary or a to-do list can help with relaxation by ‘dumping’ stressors or tasks down at night (9).
To conclude, it cannot be underestimated how important sleep is for human and athletic performance (2). Coaches who reinforce these eight powerful tips with their athletes can contribute to encouraging positive sleep habits in athletes. Questionnaires, apps and wearable technology are all tools that can help coaches monitor an athlete’s sleep (11).
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