By Art Horne
Good sleep habits play an important role in athletic performance; there are few things as intuitive as the need for a good night's rest. Yet how many athletes in your setting truly take advantage of it? If you've ever looked around a team bus and seen heads bobbing up and down as athletes doze off during even short trips, it's obvious that many are sleep deprived.
On the physical side, sleep-deprivation studies have shown that the primary negative effect of sleep debt is a decrease in time to exhaustion during activity. In prolonged performance tests, subjects who have gotten less sleep consistently tire more quickly than those who have gotten more. The mental effects of sleep debt, meanwhile, are much more pronounced. And for competitive sports, in which decisions must be made in the blink of an eye and concentration is at a premium, sleep deprivation can really hinder an athlete’s ability to succeed.
The goal of nine hours per night for teens and college students will seem unrealistic to many, but the closer they can come to that number, the better they'll feel and the more they'll enjoy the health, recovery, and performance benefits of sleep.
Consistency in sleep time is valuable as well. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day takes maximum advantage of the body's natural circadian rhythm, while having different bedtimes and wake-up times every day can throw off the internal clock. Once a routine is established, athletes will find they are able to fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly through the night.
Here are other helpful sleep tips to pass on to your athletes:
• Eliminate as many light sources as possible when going to bed. This means turning off computer monitors, using dark curtains over dorm windows, and even rolling up a towel and putting it at the base of the door to block light from the hallway. If these steps are not possible, try using a sleeping mask to cover your eyes.
• Try wearing soft foam earplugs to eliminate nighttime noises that might interrupt your sleep. Or, if you're used to some ambient noise at night, use a fan, humidifier, or other appliance that creates "white noise" to make you more comfortable.
• Turn off the ringer on your phone(s) before going to bed. Remember that interrupted sleep can deprive you of the deeper stages of the sleep cycle, which have so many crucial benefits.
• Engage in progressive relaxation activities as you prepare to go to sleep. Being very physically active late at night, exposure to bright light right before bed (for instance from a computer monitor or television), or eating less than two hours before bedtime can delay "sleep latency," making it harder to fall asleep and robbing you of total sleep time.
• Set the room at a cool, comfortable temperature for sleep. Some people prefer warmer sleep environments than others, so when your team travels, try to find a roommate with a similar temperature preference.
This is an adapted article that ran previously in Training & Conditioning magazine, written by Art Horne, MEd, ATC, CSCS, now the Head Athletic Trainer of the Atlanta Hawks..