“Sleep is for the weak!”...probably one of the more common phrases in today’s society, right along with “I’ll rest when I’m dead!” I’m sure we’ve all heard these uttered at some point in our lives the glorification of an 80-hour work week, the grind, Hard Work Pays Off #HWPO...but does it?
In this edition of “What the Science Says”, we’re going to expand on the most important component of our athlete development protocol: sleep. The National Sleep Foundation suggests school-aged children (5 to 13 years old) should get 9-11 hours of sleep, while teens need 8-10 hours. As a coach, this can be the most frustrating component of your training program, since this is where you have the least amount of control.
But, we’re going to arm you with the data to help you educate your athletes and/or, if you’re coaching youth, to their parents as well.
In the S&C and fitness world, it’s pretty common to hear that “gains are made in the kitchen”; this is an unavoidable truth, as a well planned nutrition program will optimize nutrient delivery to aid in recovery. But, the kitchen isn’t the only place to make gains and nutrition does not sit alone at the base of our Athletic Pyramid. Sleep shares an equal, if not greater, position when compared to proper fueling..
If you’re a devout listener of the Premier Podcast in Strength and Conditioning-ing-ing, you’ve known the importance of sleep since Episode 207. However, if you’re new to the scene, or just missed the episode, here are some nuggets to chew on. Quick fact: adolescent athletes who get less than 8 hours of sleep per night have 1.7x greater chance of getting injured (1), which can start a vicious cycle of pain disturbing they’re already poor sleep (2).
We can throw a 4.5x greater likelihood that they’re going to get sick, too (3). Given this, do you still think it’s prudent to have your athletes in the weight room before the sun is up? What if I told you that half of your athletes are poor sleepers to begin with (4)? We’ve already covered the importance of sleep in maintaining your hormone balance. Injured, sick, and weak athletes don’t win games. Since it’s common for sleep quality to be poorer the night before competitions (5, 6), quality rest on non-competition days is even more important.
But what if your athlete can doesn’t get injured or sick...everything’s good then, right? Let’s turn to the data. While at Stanford, Cheri Mah used the 11 players on the men’s varsity basketball team to find the answers. Using a baseline-half court-baseline shuttle sprint, 10 free throws, 15 three pointers, and the athletes’ subjective well-being score of 1 to 10 as dependent measures, she measured the effect of having college athletes sleep for 10 hours a night for one month.
As a group, this increased the average time of sleeping by 1 hour and 50 minutes; oh by the way these athletes were already getting 8 hours a night before the study. Despite already getting the recommended amount of rest, they dropped over half a second from their sprint, went from 7- to 8-for-10 on free throws and 10 to ~12-for-15 on three pointers, with the additional sleep.
Naturally, whether it’s from better recovery or playing better, the athletes’ perception of well-being increased with the extra sleep (6). What if you told your athletes they could sink 3 or 4 more shots a game, or have that faster first step to juke the defender? But they’ve only got 24 hours to work with, how do we maximize their opportunity to get enough sleep?
Cat Nap Fever
Many cultures have a tradition of napping during their day; the Italians have their riposo, the Spanish have their siesta, and American college students have their mid-class snoozes. While some major companies like Google and Zappos allow for naps, the United States as a whole doesn’t have a napping tradition.
However, the science shows that we might be better if we did. Researchers who tracked elite rugby players during a 13-day pre-season camp reported that athletes who napped got, on average, 115 more minutes of sleep per day than those who didn’t (7, 8). Moving to game day, studies with athletes involved in multi-day tournaments, or playing multiple games per week, have shown that naps between competition may prove to be just as effective as a single full night of 10 hours (9).
But, like everything else we do for sport, practice is necessary. Since naps as short as 30 minutes can cause “sleep inertia”, test and develop a strategy during off-competition times (5). Getting 7-9 hours of sleep, nap or not, is the expectation. But, what can your athlete do to make the expectation a reality?
Ideally, you want your athlete to find their natural circadian rhythm, as their circadian phenotype might not align with the current strategy they’re on (10). Maybe they’re a “morning lark” that is stuck in a “night owl’s” world, or late-night lion trying to catch tuna when the sun comes up. To accurately assess this alignment, they’d need to have a research lab at their disposal.
Power Athlete Radio alum Dr. Kirk Parsley offers a solution for this, but there is some low hanging fruit you can have them easily snag before that. First, ensure that their room is dark, quiet, and around 65ºF (11, 12). Why does temperature matter? Well, the only stage of sleep that your body can actually thermoregulate itself in is wakefulness. So, if you’re too hot, your body is going to solve the problem by waking you up. And just how dark does the room need to be? We’re talking blackout shades, sleep mask, and covering up the alarm clock dark. Don’t let any amount of light throw them for a loop!
Once they’ve got the room set up, make sure they’re avoiding caffeine within 6 hours leading up to sleep (13). This can be tough for the hustlers who are always going, so it’s important to note that this paper used a dose of 400mg...roughly 1 ½ venti iced americanos from Starbucks. But really, with adequate sleep and nutrition, they won’t need much caffeine during the day so this issue might resolve itself.
Training is important, but sleep is more so. Your adult athletes need 7-9 hours a night, and your kids 10+. If they’re not getting that, changes need to be made. As a coach, you can only do so much. Empower your athletes with strategies to help get the most out of their sleep. But coach, hold yourself accountable too. If they aren’t getting enough sleep, you can’t expect great things out of them in training. Backing off on your end until they get things under control may just be what needs to be done. Be sure to check your ego on that, because the last thing you want to do is contribute to their already challenging sleep habits.
- Milewski, M. D., Skaggs, D. L., Bishop, G. A., Pace, J. L., Ibrahim, D. A., Wren, T. A., & Barzdukas, A. (2014). Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, 34(2), 129-133.
- Hainline, B., Derman, W., Vernec, A., Budgett, R., Deie, M., Dvořák, J., ... & Moseley, G. L. (2017). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on pain management in elite athletes. Br J Sports Med, 51(17), 1245-1258.
- Prather, A. A., Janicki-Deverts, D., Hall, M. H., & Cohen, S. (2015). Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep, 38(9), 1353-1359.
- Swinbourne, R., Gill, N., Vaile, J., & Smart, D. (2016). Prevalence of poor sleep quality, sleepiness and obstructive sleep apnoea risk factors in athletes. European journal of sport science, 16(7), 850-858.
- Hausswirth, C., & Mujika, I. (Eds.). (2013). Recovery for performance in sport. Human Kinetics.
- Cheri D. Mah, Kenneth E. Mah, Eric J. Kezirian, William C. Dement; The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players, Sleep, Volume 34, Issue 7, 1 July 2011, Pages 943–950, https://doi.org/10.5665/SLEEP.1132
- Thornton, H. R., Duthie, G. M., Pitchford, N. W., Delaney, J. A., Benton, D. T., & Dascombe, B. J. (2017). Effects of a 2-Week High-Intensity Training Camp on Sleep Activity of Professional Rugby League Athletes. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 12(7), 928-933.
- Thornton, H. R., Delaney, J. A., Duthie, G. M., & Dascombe, B. J. (2017). Effects of Pre-Season Training on the Sleep Characteristics of Professional Rugby League Players. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 1-23.
- Pitchford, Bishop, Bartlett (2017). Resting to Recover: Influence of sleep extension on recovery following high-intensity exercise. ECSS, abstract
- Facer-Childs, E., & Brandstaetter, R. (2015). The impact of circadian phenotype and time since awakening on diurnal performance in athletes. Current Biology, 25(4), 518-522.
- Okamoto-Mizuno, K., & Mizuno, K. (2012). Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm. Journal of physiological anthropology, 31(1), 14.
- Parmeggiani, P. L. (1986). Interaction between sleep and thermoregulation: an aspect of the control of behavioral states. Sleep, 10(5), 426-435.
- Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of clinical sleep medicine: JCSM: official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 9(11), 1195.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.