Whether you’re an athlete or not, sleep is a crucial factor in the well-being equation that often gets overlooked. Here we explain why you should be taking your sleeping hours as seriously as your waking hours.
If My Olympia Jay Cutler took sleep seriously, so should you
Sleep is The Best Thing For You
As evidence grows of the importance of sleep to ensuring health and well-being, people are thought to be sleeping less and less well. In the US, the number of people experiencing short sleep (less than six hours a night) has been steadily increasing since at least 2013, putting the health of an increasing number of people at risk.
Factors usually blamed include the increasingly stressful nature of modern-day life; the ubiquity of electronic equipment, especially computers and mobile phones, whose use before bed can interfere with the body’s vital circadian rhythms; and rising levels of obesity, which can cause obstructive conditions like sleep apnoea.
Here we’ll talk about the various ways that sleep is vital to well-being and athletic performance. Although getting adequate sleep is of course important to athlete and non-athlete alike, the high physical and mental demands of athletic performance, especially at the highest levels, demand even closer attention to sleep to ensure that performance and recovery are in no way impaired.
Sleep apnea is not just something obese people suffer from: those gnarly neck and trap gains may be getting in the way of your airways, with potentially life-threatening effects
Sleep is a topic we have already covered with regard to the importance of maintaining proper hormonal balance. Ensuring optimal hormone balance, especially of the master male hormone, testosterone, has become something of a personal crusade for us at Herculean Strength.
Download our amazing FREE ebook on testosterone now!
Back in May we wrote about a study which showed that increasing your sleep can double your testosterone levels as a man.
The study built on earlier work that showed that lack of sleep can wreak havoc with the body’s hormonal balance. A bad night’s sleep can reduce insulin sensitivity in young men by 20%, rising to 25% in diabetics!
It was also already known that the body makes most of its testosterone when we are asleep, and that old men tend to sleep less well. At the same time, older men lost testosterone as they age. Could it be that men lose testosterone as they age simply because they sleep less? This is what the researchers set out to discover.
They first established a baseline morning testosterone reading for the subjects, 12 healthy non-smoking men between the ages of 64 and 74. The subjects were then fitted with a device that monitored their sleeping patterns. The results clearly showed that those who slept the most experienced the greatest increase in testosterone levels when their testosterone was measured the next day.
As we noted:
‘The men that slept the least had testosterone levels in a normal to low (200-300ng/dl) range for their age, while the men who slept the most had levels (500-700ng/dl) that you might expect today in a healthy young man.
These conclusions suggest that before men consider testosterone replacement therapy, they might more sensibly consider measuring the amount of kip they get. As Penev [the lead author] notes, however, measuring should be done accurately, because most men estimate their sleep levels wrongly. Penev’s subjects thought they had slept an average of 7.25 hours a day, when in fact the average was only 6 hours.’
But sleep isn’t just important for ensuring optimal hormonal balance. It’s well known that sleep is critical to a wide variety of physical and mental processes in the body. Scientists believe that a variety of critical processes occur during sleep, such as memory consolidation, information processing, physical growth and muscular repair.
Sleep also appears to be vital to proper immune function, as the body produces cytokines that help it to fight off infection. Sleep also helps to reduce oxidative stress in the body, which is responsible for a whole host of chronic conditions including neurodegenerative diseases.
We’ve discussed free radicals, the agents responsible for oxidative stress, in our article on vegetable oils – ‘one of the worst things you can eat’. In that article, we wrote:
‘Free radicals are high-energy electrons that play a role in every known form of disease. They do this by altering the structure of more or less every molecule they come into contact with, a process known as oxidative damage. And while free radicals are actually used by the body as part of its own defence system, a diet containing the bad fats listed above can cause uncontrollable cascades of oxidative damage.’
Even if you don’t have a vegetable-oil-laden diet, that doesn’t mean you’ll need less sleep because of the reduction in free radicals in circulation in your body. As we noted, free radicals are part of the body’s own defence system, and sleep is an important part of keeping it in check.
Since we’re concerned most of all with athletic performance, it’s worth focusing on studies that look at sleep’s direct effects on athletic performance. Numerous studies have substantiated that getting the right amount of sleep is essential to performing at your best. Take these three, for instance:
- A Stanford study of basketball players showed that players who extended their sleep to 10 hours a night experienced a number of benefits. The players ran faster in both half-court and full-court sprints, their shooting improved by at least 9% for both free throws and three-point shots and they reported improved physical and mental well-being.
- Male and female swimmers showed similar benefits from extending their sleep to ten hours a night. Their reaction times off the blocks were faster, they were able to turn quicker and their kick strokes became more powerful. Sprint times improved too, and like the basketball players the swimmers reported improved feelings of physical and mental well-being.
- Tennis players who increased their sleep hours to nine a day were also able to increase their accuracy and improve their general well-being.
Studies have also shown just how much of a detrimental effect sleep deprivation can have on athletic performance.
Sleep deprivation has been shown to:
- Reduce ability, for instance by reducing sprint times.
- Decrease accuracy, for instance among tennis players.
- Decrease athletes’ endurance, bringing them to exhaustion faster.
- Stunt cognitive function, making choices more difficult.
All in all, it’s abundantly clear that if you want to feel and perform at your best, you’re going to have to get enough sleep.
The general recommendation for elite athletes seems to be about nine hours a night, but even if you aren’t an elite athlete, if you’re working out regularly and want to make the best possible progress, you should be looking at between seven and nine hours a night.
If you find that you have had a sleepless night, a nap may also be of benefit. Athletes who anticipate losing sleep, perhaps through nerves the night before a competition, have also been shown to benefit from extending their sleep in the nights leading up to the sleepless night or nights.
If you want to improve your sleep quality, you should aim to improve your ‘sleep hygiene’
- Create an appropriate sleep environment. Keep your sleeping space dark and cool with little to no noise. Reserve your sleep environment for sex and sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime. These beverages can interrupt sleep or lead to more disturbed sleep.
- Stay away from electronics in the hours before bedtime. This includes TVs, cell phones, and computers. The blue light that these devices emit can affect your circadian rhythm. If you want to use screens, invest in blue-light reducing glasses or install a blue-light reducing app.
- Wind down. Activities such as reading, taking a bath, or meditating can help you relax and get ready to sleep.
- Get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying. Do a quiet activity in another space until you feel sleepy.
- Nap briefly, if at all. Naps should last no longer than an hour and should not be taken after 3 p.m.
- Reduce stressors. Not only do mental stressors affect sleep quality, but they also impact performance overall.
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