Athletes and Sleep

Let’s face it, we all love to sleep.

I don’t have to be a bed mattress salesman and tell you one-third of your life is spent sleeping.

Here are 5 topics that athletes should consider when it comes to sleep. Non-athletes will benefit from this article, too.

1. How Much to Sleep

I’m a firm believer you should sleep in multiples of 90 minute blocks to match your REM cycles. That is 3 hours, 4.5, 6, 7.5 or 9 hours. You should never have an alarm clock wake you up in the middle of deep REM sleep, or else you will feel groggy all day. Some experience the “cobwebs in the brain” sensation.

Why are people told to sleep 8 hours a night? I know, it’s nice easy calculation of 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, and 8 hours remaining. Meditating or reading for 30 minutes before bed makes sense as that makes 0.5 + 7.5 = 8 hours or exactly 5 REM cycles People who sleep 8 or 8.5 hours are usually the ones who “can’t wake up” or “feeling tired all the time”.

For me, my standard is usually 6 hours, sometimes 7.5 on a weekend when I sleep in, and rarely it’s only 4.5 hours when I stay up late.

The trick is how to be “alert” enough in your sleep to be able to have the “consciousness” to wake up.

It takes a bit of practice, and trial and error, but all you have to do is calculate how long it takes for you to fall sleep and do the math. Meditation helps! Perhaps it may be better to sleep at the same time every night once you get your rhythm established.

If you have a hard time waking up, try good old caffeine or better yet try Phenylalanines and Tyrosine but watch the sugar intake on some of these drinks.

2. How Long to Nap

Based on the above, it’s obvious that my naps are 90 minutes long, give or take a few minutes each way. I’ve heard 15 or 20 minute naps are the way to go, on the sofa and NOT in your bed, but that’s all a matter of choice. I have no problem getting under the sheets.

In European countries with summer temperatures over 35C or 100F, it’s normal to take a nap after a big lunch between 2 and 5 pm. Siesta anyone?

3. When to Wake Up for a 8am Event

Sometimes you have a 8 or 9 am competition, or earlier. Thus I feel you need 4 hours to “wake up” for speed and power events. So that means a 5 am wake up call, just for the sake of waking up. Get up, get a coffee, watch TV in the hotel room, whatever. Just stay awake.

For distance runners, it’s a different story, as they do not have the high intensity neural requirements of a sprinter.

This is why “prime time” (i.e. between 8 and 11pm) is best for the Track and Field sprints… both for the TV audience as well as neuro-physiologically.

4. Sleep Deprivation from Late nights or early wake-ups

I believe you can go 1 day on less sleep than normal, and still be functional both mentally and physically. Stretch that 2 or 3 days at you may be in trouble. (Students, are you reading this?)

So if you have a 7am marathon start, and have to catch the 4 am shuttle bus, don’t worry and just wake up at 2:30 or 3am. Just make sure you don’t wake up in a deep sleep (see above… get 4.5, 6, 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep). One night of less sleep won’t make a difference, unless you believe it will, and then it will.

In the long run, less sleep for one single night it won’t matter. But abuse it, and you may end up getting sick with a weakened immune system, among other things.

5. Effects of Speedwork and CNS

This topic rarely lets documented, but CNS (central nervous system) overload is like being hung-over from alcohol without drinking alcohol. This can occur when you do too much speedwork or a high volume of high intensity Olympic lifts or even plyometrics.

I noticed that after an intensive speed workout, or even a lifting session with power cleans and dead lifts, I get the “restless leg syndrome” as well as not being able to sleep that night. So watch out for this phenomenon and try to adjust your sleep patterns around it.

Of course, the best method is to prevent CNS overload or overtraining in the first place.