Recovery is an important set of actions that allows the body to heal, helps prevent the potential risk of injury, and ultimately improves athletic performance. Exercise or any prolonged/intense taxing of the body causes muscle tissue breakdown, fluid loss, and depletion of energy stores. Most athletes are aware that recovery is an important part of achieving peak performance. Recovery encompasses a range of actions that include short and long-term practices. Short-term recovery (active recovery) is directly after intense exercise. The goal is to keep the body moving at a lower intensity and not repeat the same intense movements during the workout while keeping the heart rate above a resting state. During short-term recovery, the goal is to promote protein synthesis, replenish energy stores and fluid status through proper nutrition. This is the time when your body is actively repairing soft tissue and removing the buildup of metabolic waste products from intense exercise (1). Long-term recovery refers to periods that are built into a training schedule. This includes cross-training, modifying workouts, and changing training variables. Sleep is a critical form of recovery that promotes physiological and mental recovery in athletic and exercise performance.
What is sleep?
While sleeping, your body is disengaged and unresponsive to the environment around you. During this time your body goes through two major sleep stages. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). Throughout the stages of NREM, your body is relatively still, brain waves are low frequency and higher voltage, heart rate is slow and regular, and blood pressure is low (2). During the REM stages, brain waves are of higher frequency (similar to during wakefulness), eye movement is rapid, and the body is in a state of paralysis (2). The quality of these sleep patterns affects physical and mental wellbeing and ultimately athletic performance.
Why is sleep important for athletes?
Deprivation of sleep is associated with increased catabolic and reduced anabolic hormones, which ultimately inhibits muscle recovery by impairing muscle protein synthesis (2). Researchers that published a study in the Biological Psychiatry, A Journal of Psychiatric Neuroscience and Therapeutics, provide data that indicates that sleep disturbances and not getting enough sleep are risk factors for increased inflammation (3).
Sleep allows the brain to process information, rebuild muscle, and allows organs to rest and recover. During sleep, the body releases several hormones that promote recovery. For example, the Human Growth Hormone (HGH), stimulates growth and cell reproduction (4). Sleep allows your sympathetic nervous system to relax, stress hormones like Cortisol decrease, and supports immune system health. A consistent lack of good sleep results in inadequate hormone levels that are related to muscle recovery, stress, and mood. All of which factor into the short and long-term performance of athletes.
How much sleep is needed for athletes is variable and depends on the type of sport/exercise, duration, and intensity. How much sleep athletes need is beyond the scope of this short review, however, it is worth noting that athletes may need increased sleep along with the general guideline that adults receive between 7-9 hours of sleep in 24 hours (5).
Sleep optimizes recovery in athletic performance, making it just as important as the training itself. So, make it a priority to get in the extra Z’s! Your body will thank you.
- Doherty R, Madigan S, Warrington G, Ellis J. Sleep and Nutrition Interactions: Implications for Athletes. Nutrients. 2019;11(4):822. Published 2019 Apr 11. doi:10.3390/nu11040822
- Irwin MR, Olmstead R, Carroll JE. Sleep Disturbance, Sleep Duration, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies and Experimental Sleep Deprivation. Biol Psychiatry. 2016;80(1):40-52. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.05.014
- Van Cauter E, Plat L. Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep. J Pediatr. 1996;128(5 Pt 2):S32-S37. doi:10.1016/s0022-3476(96)70008-2
- Vitale KC, Owens R, Hopkins SR, Malhotra A. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int J Sports Med. 2019;40(8):535-543. doi:10.1055/a-0905-3103