Sleep: A Performance Enhancer

by Dr. Dan Shuman

Sleep is importantSleep is probably one of the most overlooked and under appreciated parts of an athlete’s training program. Everyone knows they should get more, but seldom do people actually make a conscious effort to improve the quality or quantity of restful sleeping hours. Certainly few people consider sleep a performance enhancer.  This is especially true in endurance athletes who typically get up before dawn to squeeze in a few hours of training before the rest of the world even starts their day. Endurance athletes typically combine the daily stressors of a “get more done” mentality personally and professionally which can take a serious toll on their bodies. The purpose of this article is to briefly explain some of the physiology behind sleep, discuss what can go wrong, and provide some tips to improve your sleep which can translate into real time performance improvements.

Sleep is basically divided into two types: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM. Both are equally important components and any effort to maximize one over the other is an exercise in futility.

While the exact function of sleep is still unclear, several studies have identified that sleep restriction (less than 6 hours a night) can wreck havoc on the body. One important result of too little sleep is the decreased ability to think and perform higher-level reasoning. A lack of proper sleep also produces increased insulin resistance. This effect decreases the primary hormone that delivers fuel to the muscles – thus training is inefficient or ineffective. Other various changes that are associated with sleep restriction are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain and depression. Finally, elevated cortisol levels are directly linked to sleep restriction.

Cortisol is a hormone made in the adrenal glands. Its main role is balancing the flow of ions in the blood. It also plays a part in mobilizing energy stores (read body fat) for use in the muscles as well as maintaining glucose levels to the brain. It also plays a role in making the thyroid work more efficiently. The key here is that cortisol is not all bad. It can however have detrimental effects when excess production of the hormones occurs as a response to starvation or increased periods of stress, injury and/or pain like that experienced during high volumes of training. Excess production increases blood pressure by as much as 15-25 mmHg by increasing the blood volume. It can also decrease amino acid uptake, decrease protein synthesis/storage, increase appetite, increase protein breakdown and suppresses the immune system. All of these are not desirable conditions for anyone, especially an endurance athlete training for high performance competitions.

So how can you get better sleep? Here are a couple ways to help you fall asleep faster and sleep longer to get the most out of the available time for sleep:

  • First, turn off all the lights in your bedroom and try to make it as dark as you can. Any light, especially from electronics can disrupt your sleeping cycle.
  • Try to limit your light exposure in the hours before bed. This will let your body know that it is time to wind down and start preparing for sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and alcohol before bed. While there are health benefits in drinking a nightly glass of wine, more than two glasses can reduce the amount of slow wave sleep, which is needed in order to feel rested in the morning.
  • Naps (up to 45 minutes) have been demonstrated to have a positive effect on mental performance and memory function.
  • Finally there is documented success with using melatonin as a sleep aid.

Melatonin has been proven to be effective in smaller doses so go for a brand that offers around 1mg per serving which should be more cost effective anyway. Take it in the hours before bed, not directly before bed since it does not induce sleep. It also a powerful antioxidant, which your body will need to fight off free radicals, produced from high levels of training intensity and volume.

Armed with this information, improving your sleep should be an easy and enjoyable way to perform better both at work and while training.

Dr. Dan Shuman is a Georgia native and has lived in Atlanta for the past six years. He is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of LaGrange College and a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Life University. He is nationally certified Active Release Techniques Instructor .