How (and why) to sleep like a great athlete:
- Chronically cutting sleep can increase fat gain and decrease lean muscle mass.
- 7-to-9 hours of sleep is probably enough if you’re sedentary. But athletes are a different story.
- Too much sleep can mess up your internal clock and lead to being “sleep drunk.”
- Regularity is important and practicing a sleep ritual can help you sleep easier and better.
- Be careful with caffeine and alcohol intake. A meal consumed one to four hours before your bedtime rich in tryptophan and also produces serotonin will help induce good sleep.
- Keep the room dark, quiet, and free of TV and other digital stimulus.
You spend about a third of your life asleep, so you probably already realize that it’s important. But you might not realize how important. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation causes dieters to lose more muscle than fat when losing weight, and sleeping either too much or too little is associated with shorter life spans. That’s why the best athletes make sleep a priority. Here’s how you can sleep like a champion.
How Much Sleep Do Athletes Need?
Most doctors recommend that people get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night—and indeed, most studies support this recommendation. One Harvard study found that the optimal amount of sleep was seven to eight hours of sleep per night, and that sleeping more than nine hours per night was almost as bad as sleeping less than five hours.
However, the subjects in that study were women over 70 years old. Indeed, most sleep studies use subjects who are representative of the average American—mostly sedentary and moderately overweight. For the average person, seven to eight hours a night seems to be enough, but studies of athletes paint a different picture. In one study, members of the Stanford men’s basketball team were instructed to sleep at least 10 hours a night. After several weeks of sleep extension, they significantly improved their running speed, reaction times, and shooting accuracy.
Indeed, many elite athletes sleep at least 10 hours per night, and LeBron James famously sleeps 12 hours a day, including a three-hour afternoon nap. On the other hand, highly successful artists, businesspeople, and politicians frequently sleep less than seven hours a night—Richard Branson, for instance, averages six hours per night. However, many of them are likely successful in spite of, not because of, their lack of sleep.
Overall, the evidence suggests that the more physically active someone is, the more sleep they need. While the average person is fine with seven hours a night, amateur athletes or people preparing for a Spartan race should be getting eight to nine hours of sleep per night. If you’re a professional or collegiate athlete, you may even benefit from extending sleep to 10 hours a night, although for everyone else, more than nine probably isn’t better.
Regularity Is Just as Important as Quantity
Since more sleep is generally good for your mental and physical health, it’s counterintuitive to think that sleeping more could make you feel bad. And yet, if you’ve ever felt groggy and tired after oversleeping, you know that that is exactly the case.
This feeling is called sleep drunkenness. It happens not because you got too much sleep per se, but because oversleeping throws off your body’s internal clock, causing it to think you’re still supposed to be asleep. To prevent sleep drunkenness, you need to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Ideally, you’d want to wake up within the same half-hour window every morning. The alarm clock is your friend here. Use it to get up at the same time every morning. If you want to sleep later on weekends, you can, but it’s best if you limit yourself to only sleeping in an hour later than you do on weekdays.
Sleep Hygiene 101
What is sleep hygiene? Simply put, it’s maintaining healthy routines and habits around sleep, and making your bedroom a healthy environment for sleep. Here are a few things you should be doing:
- Sleep in complete darkness. Cover up or unplug any light sources in your bedroom. If any noticeable amount of light comes in through the windows, get blackout curtains. Sleep with a sleep mask if you need to. Conversely, expose yourself to bright lights during the day, especially in the morning, to help your body set its biological clock.
- Keep your bedroom quiet. If noise from outside your home disturbs you, mask it with a fan or white noise machine.
- Start turning down the lights and stop looking at screens (TV and computer—Kindles are all right) two hours before bedtime. If you really find it hard to give up your computer in the evening, install f.lux to dim and redden the screen at night.
- Follow a set evening routine to help you relax. Yoga, stretching, and fiction reading before bed tend to be helpful.
- Keep your bedroom as cool as you can while still feeling comfortable. You can also experiment with changing what you wear to bed—wearing socks makes a surprisingly big difference.
- Stop consuming caffeine after about 2 p.m.
- Don’t drink alcohol later in the evening. It may seem like a sedative, but it reduces sleep quality, making you miss out on the physically restorative deep sleep.
The Importance of Evening Nutrition
What you eat in the evening can have a major impact on your sleep quality and sleep latency—how long it takes you to get to sleep. There is substantial evidence that eating a meal one to four hours before bed can improve sleep quality. This meal should include two things:
- It needs proteins that are rich in tryptophan. One gram of tryptophan is sufficient to improve sleep quality, and can be obtained from 300 grams of turkey, 400 grams of most other meats, or 200 grams of pumpkin seeds.
- It should include fast-absorbing starches such as bread, pasta, rice, or potatoes. Your brain uses carbohydrates to produce serotonin, which is then converted into melatonin.
Taking a melatonin supplement is also a good option. In one study, women who took one or three milligrams of melatonin before bed lost fat and gained muscle without changing their diets or following an exercise program.
Start Sleeping Like a Champion
When you build good sleep habits and start sleeping at least eight hours a night on a regular schedule, you’ll be able to train harder, recover more effectively, and have more energy throughout the day. And since exercise improves sleep quality, this becomes a positive cycle of better exercise and better sleep.
In short, if you want to be a great athlete, you need to start sleeping like one.
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