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  • Writer's picture Sammii Koch

Sleep Your Way to Peak Performance: How Proper Rest Can Help Athletes Maximise Their Performance


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Sleep plays an essential role in athletic performance. Studies have shown that even one night of complete sleep deprivation can decrease muscle protein synthesis and create a catabolic environment, leading to a decrease in sports performance. The recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7-9 hours per night; however, athletes may require more sleep to recover from the physical and mental stress of high training loads and travel.

Without proper sleep, athletes are more likely to experience fatigue, a decrease in reaction time, and an overall decrease in performance. Poor sleep can also increase the chances of injury, as well as a decrease in the body's ability to build and repair muscle.

To maximise performance, athletes should make sure they get enough quality sleep. Doing this will help them to recover faster, stay healthier, and perform at their peak.

It's not just about the quantity of sleep you get, but the quality too! Although you may feel fine after only 5 hours of sleep, imagine how much better you'd feel with 8 hours. You'd not only notice an improvement in your athletic performance, but in other areas of your life as well. Get the rest you need and you'll see the results!


Sleep has been proven to have a restorative effect on the immune system, endocrine system, muscular system and nervous system, and it can also aid in learning, memory, and synaptic plasticity, all of which can impact athletic recovery and performance. Insufficient sleep and sleep disturbances are behavioural risk factors that can lead to inflammation and increase the risk of illness and disease, but they can be improved by promoting healthy sleep habits. For athletes, sleep quality and duration are especially critical as their bodies undergo significant physical and mental stress during training and competition.


Sleep deprivation negatively affects glucose metabolism and neuroendocrine function which can affect carbohydrate metabolism, appetite, energy intake and protein synthesis (muscle building and recovery).


Recent evidence, as well as anecdotal information, suggests that athletes may experience a reduced quality and/or quantity of sleep. Sleep deprivation can have significant effects on athletic performance, especially submaximal, prolonged exercise. Compromised sleep can also negatively influence learning, memory, cognition, pain perception, immunity and inflammation.


A study on The Impact of Sleep Duration on Performance Among Competitive Athletes determined that sports requiring speed, tactical strategy, and technical skill are most sensitive to sleep duration manipulations. Furthermore, longer-term sleep manipulations are more likely than acute sleep manipulations (whether deprivation or extension) to affect athletic performance.


Sleep extension tends to improve athletic performance, whereas total sleep deprivation (24-hour) and partial sleep deprivation (less than one night) tend to impair performance, although anaerobic or explosive muscle power performance seems less sensitive to sleep deprivation than does aerobic or endurance performance, as shown in this study.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society advise that young adults and adults get at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, many professional athletes not only exhibit low total sleep duration (<7 hours/night), but also report lower sleep quality.


So, how can you improve your sleep duration and quality? Setting yourself up for success by practising good hygiene is extremely important (‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to healthy habits, behaviours and environmental factors that can be adjusted to help you have a good night’s sleep).


Some strategies to implement include:

  • Build a consistent pre-bed routine.

  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature.

  • Remove or aim to minimise your use of electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smartphones, in your bedroom prior to sleep.

  • Avoid extremely large meals and alcohol before bedtime.

  • Don’t consume caffeine within 6 hours of your intended bedtime.

  • Include the foods below in your evening meals and snacks

Nutrition Strategies for Improved Sleep

There have been several nutritional strategies researched and found to potentially enhance sleep quality, such as consuming high-carbohydrate and high-glycemic index evening meals, supplementing with melatonin, consuming protein foods rich in tryptophan, tart cherry juice, kiwifruit, and consuming certain micronutrients. We will discuss a few of them here.


These nutrients and foods are backed by scientific research to promote sleep:


Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid that interacts with chemicals in our brain, increasing our serotonin levels, as well as our melatonin levels, which are chemicals that regulate our sleep-wake cycle; inducing sleep and also waking us up.


A recent systematic review reported that tryptophan supplementation can shorten the waking time after sleep onset, and supplementing at least 1g of tryptophan decreased wake after sleep onset.


Foods high in tryptophan include dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, canned tuna, turkey, chicken, oats, nuts and seeds, particularly peanuts. For context, to consume 1g you would need to consume about a litre and a half of full cream milk, so aiming to get the 1g dose as described in the study above may be challenging through food alone at bedtime, and discussing supplementation with your dietitian may be a good idea if this is something you would like to integrate into your sleep routine.

Tart cherry juice

Tart cherries contain melatonin and tryptophan, both of which help with sleep because they will increase the total amount of melatonin in your body after consuming them. Tart cherry juice is a practical way to consume a more highly condensed form of these nutrients from the fruit.


A study on hockey players found that although they did not find short-term intake of tart cherry juice to change the levels of melatonin and cortisol in the athletes, they did find it had a positive impact on sleep quality with regards to the athletes total time in bed, reduced wake after sleep onset, and movement index.


A 2012 study found there were significant increases in time in bed, total sleep time and sleep efficiency for participants who supplemented with cherry juice prior to bed.

Tart cherry juice has also been researched and found to improve many other health parameters in the general population and recovery markers after exercise in athletes. If you are an athlete looking for the extra edge with your training recovery, and you are already ticking the most important boxes for recovery, including total nutrition and hydration, then adding tart cherry juice supplementation may be something to discuss with your sports dietitian.


There isn’t firm research or recommendation on dosage or timing as yet for taking tart cherry juice for the purpose of improving sleep. Drinking approx. 500mL of regular tart cherry juice each day seems to be the general recommendation; I would recommend splitting this into 2 doses – 250mL in the morning, and 250mL about an hour before bed. You can also get more condensed forms of the juice as a concentrate, where you can add a 30mL portion twice daily to your desired amount of water.


Kiwi fruit

A 2017 systematic review found that consuming kiwi fruit 1 hour prior to bed improved (sleep quality and daytime functioning in young adults who were struggling with insomnia.

This supported a 2011 study that consuming 2 kiwifruits 1 hour before bedtime nightly for 4 weeks showed that there was less waking time after sleep onset, participants fell asleep quicker, and both their total sleep time and sleep efficiency were significantly increased.

Practical suggestion: add a kiwi fruit into your dessert or supper snack 1 hour before bedtime; chop it up with some berries and yoghurt for a small serving of fruit salad.


If you would like help improving the quality of your sleep and would like to look into how your nutritional intake around bedtime can enhance this, reach out to Sammii our Sports Dietitian. She will assess your current nutrition status, sleep schedule and training load, and give you personalised nutrition guidance to get the most out of your recovery, so you can get the most out of your training!


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