You Snooze, You…Win?! How to Maximize Your Sleep to Perform Your Best!
By: Leda McDaniel
We all know that sleep is important for recovery as an endurance athlete. But how much sleep is necessary? And how do you optimize your sleep with the demands of real life like being a new parent? Or fitting in early morning workouts?
The basic recommendation is to get between 7-9 hours of sleep for best physical and mental health and overall functioning. However, we also want to take into consideration the quality of sleep not just the quantity of sleep. Some research suggests that we need to be getting enough “deep” sleep or REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep for the best recovery and rest for our body, mind, and nervous system. That all sounds great, but as many of us experience there are a plethora of time demands in any one day…job and family responsibilities, commuting time, prioritizing time for training, and if we are lucky we may get a little bit of personal time to just take a deep breathe and stop to think! Often it can be difficult to get to bed at an early hour and “turn off” mental noise and distractions.
As you can see, there is no quick answer when it comes to how to improve your sleep health. But, that does not mean it has to be overly complicated. In trying to prioritize the variables that can have the most positive impact on your recovery during sleeping, it can be helpful to have some guidelines from the sleep pros so that you know the advice you’re following is tried and true. In Episode #38 of the More Than Miles Podcast, physical therapists Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards and Dr. Kacy Seynders interview athlete and sleep researcher, Dr. Amy Bender, and talk all about how sleep quantity and quality can influence performance for endurance athletes. Dr. Bender is a former collegiate basketball player, has worked with multiple professional athletes to improve their sleep, and now heads up sleep research at Cerebra Sleep System.
In the interview, Dr. Bender discusses some of the myths and facts surrounding what constitutes good sleep for recovery and why we should care as endurance athletes! She also discusses how to optimize sleep during periods of life in which we may not be able to control our sleep as much, such as when negotiating the time of being a new parent. She also talks about some of her research in a controlled sleep lab and some of the exciting innovations that her team is working on! See below for some of the key information from Dr. Bender.
How do you get good sleep and why is it important? Here are some of the top strategies discussed in the Podcast Episode:
Try to reduce screen time 1-2 hours before bedtime
Try to get some sunlight early in the day (helps to normalize circadian rhythms)
Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night
It is okay to add a short nap in during the day if you are getting up early for training or not able to get 7-9 hours of nighttime sleep
But, what if you are an endurance athlete trying to get the most physically out of your body for taxing workouts? There are also likely the added time demands of trying to build in these extra workouts into your day, while getting all of your other adulting tasks completed (i.e., school or work, childcare, being a good partner/spouse/friend, etc.). As an athlete herself, Dr. Bender is no stranger to time management for various aspects of life and she has also done some specific work and research within an endurance population. Some of her sleep tips specific to endurance athletes are shared in the table below:
So, why are these Sleep “Do’s” and “Don’ts” Important for the endurance athlete?
“More is usually better” when it comes to sleep for athletes, Dr. Bender explains that you need sleep to recover from training sessions. So, athletes could need MORE than 7-9 hours which is the recommended average sleep quantity for adults who are not active.
Use “Sleep Banking” to improve performance You could try a strategy called “sleep banking” which means to increase your total sleep time leading up to a competition or performance (this usually means added sleep hours at night, but could also be adding in daytime naps) and research suggests this can improve performance for endurance athletes
Have a good “Pre-sleep routine” this is important because it takes time for the body and brain to wind down from activity and stimulation
Add in naps during your day Dr. Bender recommends adding in short naps during your day if you are unable to get the recommended hours of nighttime sleep. This will increase total cumulative sleep time, which could be beneficial for recovery and performance.
Think that you need less sleep than others! Athletes need sleep to recover from hard training sessions and perform their best in competition. The detrimental effects of poor sleep (i.e., reduced energy, muscle/body recovery, impaired cognition etc.) are true for EVERYONE!
Train too late in the day (close to bedtime) Your body needs time to “downregulate” and intense workouts later in the day can poorly impact sleep duration and quality
Drink or eat too close to bedtime If you eat a lot of food or high fat or fiber foods that may delay gastric (stomach) emptying, this may poorly impact sleep quality. Also, if you drink too close to bedtime, waking because of the need to urinate may disturb sleep.
Delay getting a “Sleep Screen” Dr. Bender talks about the possible benefits of a “sleep screen” for athletes, which will evaluate not only quantity (hours of sleep), but also sleep quality. It may surprise you to learn that from Dr. Bender’s experience, up to 25% of elite athletes have some sort of sleep dysfunction!
Other Recommendations to improve sleep quality:
Try to get some exposure to natural light in the morning; This helps maintain healthy circadian rhythms and sleep quality at night!
*Note: A recent NY Times article on Circadian rhythms agrees! https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/magazine/circadian-medicine.html If you are interested in optimizing your sleep, check out the full episode here: More Than Miles Podcast Episode #38: Amy Bender: Sleep for Sport LINKS: At Home sleep tracking devices: https://www.cerebra.health/ Dr. Amy Bender’s Website: https://www.sleepintowin.com/ Athlete Sleep Screening Questionnaire: https://centreforsleep.com/education-and-awareness/athlete-sleep-screening-questionnaire/athlete.html NY Times Article on Circadian Rhythms: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/magazine/circadian-medicine.html?auth=login-email&login=email