Coaches at many top American universities are digging into the science of sleep, and what it reveals about sleep’s power to boost athletic performance. Several college football programs are taking new steps to ensure their players are getting enough sleep. Some are using sleep tracking to monitor the quantity and quality of players’ sleep, others are hiring sleep coaches to help players establish and maintain healthy sleep routines throughout the season. One coach even took up residence in players’ dorm during training camp to ensure players were getting to bed on schedule.
Sleep’s a smart play.
Devoting attention to sleep is a smart strategy and a wise investment for athletes and teams. Athletes face more widespread and greater threats to healthy sleep than ever before, coming not only from the rigors of their schedules, but also from sleep-stealing use of technology.
Technology used in the wrong ways at the wrong times can pose hazards to health and to sleep, for athletes and non-athletes. The nighttime use of smartphones, tablets, and other devices emit sleep-disrupting light that suppresses melatonin, throws off circadian rhythms, and delays the onset of sleep. The result, more daytime fatigue and less robust performance on and off the field. Young people—including college, elite, and professional athletes—are more likely to be using technology, and more likely to have their sleep disrupted as a result.
Sleep powers performance.
Scientific research has long pointed to the performance enhancing powers of sleep. In the world of athletics, every bit of performance—both mental and physical—is immensely valuable. From speed and reaction time to decision-making and recovery, both sleep quality and sleep quantity can make athletes stronger, quicker, smarter, and more agile. Take a look at some of the most important ways sleep influences athletic performance:
Athletes’ cognitive prowess is as important to their success as their physical excellence. Fascinating research shows how the brains of athletes are constantly making new neural connections, integrating information, relying on memory of previous experiences to make decisions and predictions swiftly and under pressure. Poor sleep undermines these important processes, impairing full memory function, and interfering with learning, storage and recall.
Sleep also has a powerful influence over pain. Poor sleep slows healing. It also increases sensitivity to pain, lowering pain thresholds and elevating perceptions of pain. Sleeping well eases pain, and increases pain tolerance. Sleep also confers powerful rejuvenation and restoration of cognitive and physical skills and abilities.
The frontier of sleep as a tool and resource for athletes at all levels is an exciting one.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
Updated September 17th 2017
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