Athlete Development - The Importance of Sleep for Recovery
June 05, 2021
Next up in our ‘Athletic Development Series’, we hear from Declan Berry on the importance of sleep in relation to athletic development and recovery. Declan holds a First Class Honours Degree in Strength and Conditioning from Limerick Institute of Technology, and is currently completing a research Masters in Strength and Conditioning, again with LIT. Declan has been involved with Irish international basketball teams for the past 3 seasons, most recently as head S&C coach with the under 18 men’s team, while also working with Offaly senior hurling team as Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach.
How does Recovery Effect Performance?
Elite athletes are in a constant cyclical state of stress, recovery and adaptation due to the daily strain imposed by training and competition. However, as players strive to achieve maximal performance, adequate recovery is sometimes overlooked as a way to buffer both physical and mental well-being. A practical recovery strategy can optimise regeneration from training and competition, which will benefit the subsequent training session or performance phase allowing the athlete to continually improve. In its simplest terms, recovery is the bodies return to pre-training functionality following a period of fatigue. Therefore, a lack of recovery post training can result in a constant fatigued state resulting in a decrease in force production or the perception that it takes more effort to produce the same force.
Seyle describes the bodies response to stress (training) in four stages. Stage one (alarm phase) occurs when the player completes a training session or game and the immediate response is fatigue. The athlete will not be able to produce the same pre-training performance levels during this period. The second stage is the resistance phase, during which time fuel stores are restored through food and the damaged muscles are regenerated through adequate recovery strategies. If this stage is done efficiently, performance levels will increase above their previous baseline and the third stage (supercompensation) will occur. In the supercompensation phase, a further training stimulus will enable the athlete to continue their progression by returning to phase one at a higher baseline, thus continuing the cycle and increasing their level of performance. If training continues without the adequate recovery, the athlete will reach the exhaustion phase (stage four) and both physical and mental capacities will begin to decline.
The Importance of Sleep
It has long been established that sleep is a basic requirement needed for health, due to its physiological and psychological restorative effects. However, recent literature has also expressed its importance for enhancing both recovery and performance. During sleep, the highest concentrations of growth hormones, which play a vital role in the repair and development of muscle tissue, are present, therefore providing the greatest opportunity to recover by regenerating damaged muscles.
The regenerative effects of sleep are not limited to muscular repair and growth. Sleep is also an important regulator of cognitive function and game related performance markers. For example, a study by Mah et al., on college Basketball players found that increasing their average total sleeping duration decreased their reaction time by 45%, meaning they had quicker responses to cognitive tasks. Further improvements were seen in sprint times, free throw conversion and 3-point field goal conversion rate which are all key determinants of success in basketball performance. The image below from the study on Stanford college basketball players shows the average improvement.
Finally, the risk of injury can be directly and indirectly impacted by sleep. A study of adolescent athletes (12-18 years) found that participants who slept less than 8.1 hours per night were almost twice as likely to experience an injury than their peers who slept more than 8.1 hours. Additionally, lack of sleep has been shown to exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Given that heightened levels of anxiety have been positively correlated with injury occurrence, it can be postulated that sleep also indirectly effects injury risk.
Are athletes getting enough sleep
The above research shows the importance of sleep for athletic development, performance recovery and injury reduction. It is clear that for elite athletes, adequate sleep can be a buffer for both physical and mental performance. Despite this, various reports suggest that athletes in particular experience inadequate sleep. Compared to the general population, athletes tend to sleep less on average (15), and their quality of sleep seems to be lower than a non-athlete counterparts. These findings contradict the study by Mah et al., which suggested that athletes benefit from more than the average sleep duration for athletic performance. Furthermore, in many elite sports, sleep is now considered key to achieving peak performance. For example, Lebron James regularly sleeps 12 hours per night. Top NBA players such as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have also expressed the importance of sleep for athletic performance . With this in mind, what strategies can be put in place to help athletes achieve adequate sleep and thus, buffer physical and mental development.
Sleep Recommendations and Strategies
The amount of sleep needed can vary depending on age, physical fitness and multiple other factors, however it id recommended that at least 7-9 hours per night sleep is attained. Strategies to increase sleep quality and quantity include creating a good sleep environment, establishing a regular sleep schedule, factoring in a 30 minute to 60 minute wind down routine before bed and/ or the addition of daytime naps to increase total sleep duration.
Sleep environments which are too hot or bright can disrupt our natural body clock and lighten sleep. It is suggested that a satisfactory sleep environments should be cool, quiet, dark and comfortable to maximise sleep quality. Further evidence reported that establishing and maintaining a regular sleep schedule could optimise the circadian (biological) effects of sleep, therefore allowing the individual to attain maximum benefits from their sleeping pattern. Additionally, factoring in a 30 minute – 60 minute wind down period where lights are sequentially dimmed, electronic devices are removed and bedtime routines are completed can enable the athlete to transition to a more relaxed brain state and promote sleepiness.
The final strategy which could potentially assist the attainment of more efficient sleep duration is the introduction of daytime naps. While the majority of sleep should occur during night-time in order to align with the normal circadian rhythm, daytime naps can increase overall sleep quantity. Naps have additionally been shown to elicit short-term performance enhancement under circumstances where night-time sleep is restricted (5). It should be noted however that naps can have negative effects when inefficiently utilised. A general recommendation is to take no longer than 30 mins nap-time as it may effect subsequent alertness later in the day. It is also recommended to avoid napping late in the day as this may effect night-time sleep quality.
Take Home Points/ Conclusion
-Recovery is an important part of elite basketball performance.
-When recovery is effectively done, it can not only heal, but can also improve both muscular and mental function.
-Adequate sleep is the most vital component for effective recovery.
-Sleep is also associated with enhancing decision making skills, increasing speed and improving shooting accuracy in basketball performance.
-Putting the right sleep strategy in place, could make the difference when aiming to achieve an elite level standard.
If you missed the previous article in our ‘Athletic Development Series’ you can catch up here - Athlete Development - How does Lebron jump so high?