New Lily

Sleep and Athletic Performance

Sleep is an elusive thing for me. I jokingly say I have been sleep deprived for twenty-two years, but I think it’s actually true. Now I’m just wondering what the physical effect has actually been. I wonder about this for more than just myself. As a mother to many kids who have all participated in athletics and have busy schedules, I question whether any of them are really getting the amount of sleep they need to perform at their best, both mentally and physically.

I have always been interested in the subject of sleep (I’ve written about it on 9 Kid Fitness) and how it affects performance, etc., but I stopped reading about it because it just left me depressed and, frankly a little exhausted. But recently I am back on the bandwagon and I am taking more serious efforts to get more sleep. I realize with a two-year old and three teenagers who keep later hours than me, this is almost an impossible task. However, I am determined-somehow – to get more sleep.

Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory followed the sleep patterns and athletic performance of Stanford athletes for years. Her research revealed that getting more sleep leads to better sports performance for all types of athletes.

One study she authored, published in 2009, followed the Stanford University women’s tennis team for five weeks as they attempted to get 10 hours of sleep each night. Those who increased their sleep time ran faster sprints and hit more accurate tennis shots than while getting their usual amount of sleep.

In earlier studies, Mah found that getting extra sleep over several weeks improved performance, mood and alertness for athletes on the Stanford men’s and women’s swim teams and men’s basketball team. Her research is some of the first to specifically look at the impact of extra hours of sleep on athletic performance and suggests that sleep is a significant factor in achieving peak athletic performance.

Athletes can easily fail to get regular, consistent hours of sleep. This lack of sleep, or “sleep debt,” appears to have a negative effect on sports performance, as well as cognitive function, mood, and reaction time. Much of this can be avoided by making regular sleep as much of a priority for athletes as practicing their sport and eating right. But most of us know that it is much easier said than done. And while I am certainly not doing the kind of things a collegiate or professional athlete is doing, Mah’s research has practical implications for all of us who are trying to achieve fitness while living our normal everyday life. In fact I would even say that for many of us it might be harder because we are adding exercise to our lives, while collegiate and professional athletes have included their sports routines in their life for a long time.

According to Mah, many of the athletes set new personal bests and broke long-standing records while participating in these studies. Based upon her studies, many Stanford coaches actually made changes to practice and travel schedules to accommodate the athlete’s need for more sleep.

Researchers speculate that deep sleep helps improve athletic performance because this is the time when growth hormone is released. Growth hormone stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning, and helps athletes recover. Studies show that sleep deprivation slows the release of this growth hormone. Sleep is also necessary for learning a new skill, so this phase of sleep may be critical for some athletes.

How Much Sleep Do You Need? Sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours of daily sleep for adults, and nine to ten hours for adolescents and teens. You can estimate your own needs by experimenting over a few weeks. If you fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed and wake up without an alarm, you are probably getting the right amount of sleep. If you fall asleep immediately upon hitting the pillow and always need an alarm to wake up, you are probably sleep deprived. Me…? Definitely sleep deprived. So now what? I guess it is really like any other important change we make whether it’s nutrition or fitness, etc. We have to want to make the change. It has to be important enough to actually do something about it. I am a little tired of hearing myself complain about being tired…I need to start making a serious effort to improve the situation. With marathon training well underway, I figure now is as good a time as any. I am going to try to get a cat nap a few days a week and to get to bed at least an hour earlier a few days a week. Im hoping that if I can be consistent, I will begin to see a difference in how I feel and, maybe even in performance on my training runs. We will see!!!!

Anybody else made a change in the amount of sleep you are getting? Did you see a difference?

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