Sleep and training: strategies to put into practice

by Jacopo Vitale



Sleep is a biological process fundamental to human health and it plays an essential role in the athlete’s recovery process. So much so that the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, has recently stressed the importance of achieving the correct quantity and quality of sleep for athletes.
This is always true, even more so during the developmental age. Unfortunately, however, acute sleep deprivation is not unusual in those who engage in sports.

Factors that influence sleep in athletes

There are many factors that negatively affect an athlete’s night-time rest. These include the time of training, elevation, exposure to light sources, and high volume and high intensity of training. Pre-race anxiety and stress levels, long-haul airline flights and their resulting jetlag, the athlete's chronotype, and many other variables also negatively affect sleep.

For example, it’s been shown that official competition, especially in the extreme evening hours, i.e., at 8:30 pm, has revealed a decrease in sleep efficiency and perception of recovery in professionals. Different types of sports also affect athletes’ sleep behaviour.

"Those who practice individual sports, such as running, triathlon, or cycling, often find themselves competing or training very early in the morning. Hence the need to anticipate the alarm clock. On the other hand, those who play team sports, such as football, volleyball, or basketball, not infrequently compete in the extreme evening hours. The consequence? A delay in falling asleep."

Fortunately, several strategies have been developed that can increase the quality and hygiene of sleep for those who play sports. These are the so-called Sleep Hygiene Strategies. Although it’s not always easy to comply with them, their validity has been widely demonstrated. Let's look at them together.

The 6 strategies for a good night's sleep for those who play sports

1. Eliminate light sources in the room. Light is our primary synchronizer. Not only that, but it also inhibits the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. In other words, light keeps us awake.

2. Turn off electronic devices (TV, PC, laptop, and cell phone) in bedroom. The reason? The backlighting of their screens emits a light, called "blue light", which is very disturbing. Translated into practice, it keeps you awake and doesn’t promote sleep. Recently, it was revealed that NBA players who use electronic devices in the evening or at night register a reduced amount of sleep. The loser is physical performance, which is reduced during the next day's game.

3. Control the environment inside the room. Bedrooms should be quiet, dark, and have temperatures above 19°. Temperatures that are too high significantly disturb sleep. It’s good to remember that our body produces melatonin when we lower the endogenous body temperature.

4. Eat light meals. The time and composition of meals play an important role. Light meals based on a mix of carbohydrates and (a little) protein consumed at least two hours before bedtime can promote a good night's rest. On the contrary, very large meals, with the presence of alcoholic beverages or caffeine and consumed close to bedtime, interfere with the athlete’s quality of sleep.

5. Listen to "relaxing" music (not rock-roll!). The same applies if you read a book. These are all activities that promote sleep as long as you don't do them in the bedroom, which should always remain a place reserved exclusively for night-time rest.

6. Avoid very intense and prolonged workouts in the extreme evening hours. Vigorous physical activities performed in the evening can negatively affect the time for falling asleep. If possible, the advice is to exercise in the morning or afternoon, and to avoid the evening or night time. Identifying your chronotype, which is your personal characteristic of being a morning ("lark") or evening ("owl") person, may help you choose the best time to exercise.

In summary

Knowing and applying these strategies is essential for those who aim to improve night-time sleep. The athlete who sleeps well reduces recovery time, decreases the risk of injury, and improves both physical and performance effectiveness. 

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