Sleep For Athletic Performance

  • Sleep, nutrition & exercise form a triad
  • Sleep is more than "Rest & Recovery"
  • Poor sleep increases lean muscle loss
  • The "triad" is integrated through physiology
  • Sleep processes incorporate athletic skills
  • Poor sleep induces stress hormones longer
  • Evidence shows that significant performance gains can be made by optimizing sleep quality
  • Your circadian rhythm should be fine-tuned to align with your desired sleep-wake cycle or you will gain weight
  • Poor sleep alters the nutrient-use and storage patterns that the body would otherwise deploy with proper nutrition
  • Olympic trainers, professional sports teams and serious athletic institutions now include sleep quality optimization practices
  • The timing of performance peaks and rest-opportunities can be aligned through your circadian rhythm for better performance
  • Even fit, young athletes that undergo short sleep periods develop (reversible) blood sugar and metabolic abnormalities equal to disorders
In athletics, it is often reflexive to consider the "triad" of training, nutrition, and sleep to be a kind of aggregate list of first priorities that can be matched together in certain ratios. But in truth, the constituents of the triad are not an aggregated set of priorities, but an integrated set. An alteration in one component translates into an alteration in the other components. Even athletes and programs that have traditionally considered "rest & recovery" to be critical aspects of training do not fully appreciate that sleep is not the same as rest. Sleep-dependent processes underlie far more of performance, development, and mental robustness than simply recovery from training. Moreover, sleep itself is the enabling foundation and "finishing" process for the other two activities.

This platform will outline the importance of sleep for the integrated triad and provide instruction for how to investigate performance-enhancing approaches to sleep through the resources that we have made available for self-guided or guided learning. The main resource for integration of the nutrition and fitness components of the TriNourish triad is our tandem TriNourish Learning platform (available from the TriNourish link above).

If You Competed Against Yourself Would You Win?

Quality Sleep Is A Performance Enhancement Strategy
Sleep that is sub-par effects reaction times, aerobic output, power output, cardiovascular performance, muscle endurance, lactic acid clearing, oxygen utilization, perception of effort, overall motivation, injury protection and other athletic performance metrics. The magnitude of impact is measurable in most domains and very significant in a few, but the net result is that a version of you that consistently engaged in a pattern of optimal sleep would handedly beat a version of you that did not. The emerging science of sleep for athletes suggests that they should not only get 'adequate' but optimal sleep during training, and they should mentally allow for transient sleep disruptions during the night(s) before or during competitive events. High quality sleep during training is akin to high quality training in general: during the competition the real work has already been fully incorporated into the sharp and robust reflexes of body-and-mind, so competition is the time to let the body do its job without indue intrusion of conscious thought.
Even during a typical day, athletic performance can vary over 25% simply due to the ebb-and-flow of our circadian rhythm. Cardiovascular endurance tests taken across six different times of day in one controlled study revealed that 'morning' types had less variance but still significant performance variation across the day (~10%) versus 'evening' chronotypes with as much as 26% variance. Predictably, 'early-bird' athletes actually performed better in earlier tests and late phenotype 'owls' performed better later in the day. In the circadian rhythm section of this educational platform, we learn that even for specific chronotypes there are also differences in the types of peaks throughout the day for everyone. The mid-morning peak is driven by rising cortisol alertness combined with low homeostatic sleep drive while the late afternoon peak is driven by a circadian timed core body temperature boost that is associated, in part, with a rise of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), as well as other circadian influences. Each of these peaks has different characteristics. Training regimens that seek to capitalize on the different characteristics of these peaks tend to schedule dexterity, agility and fine-motor skill movements during the mid-morning peak and large muscle-recruitment strength or power training during the core body temperature rise in the afternoon. Of course, recovery time and other considerations come into play when designing training regimens (as well as the individual circadian rhythm timing of the athlete), nonetheless the more general point that the timing of exercise and sleep-dependent processes such as growth hormone (GH) release during slow-wave-sleep (SWS), or sleep-dependent fine-motor skill consolidation during late NREM2 sleep, all point to the fundamental importance of our circadian rhythm for fitness and performance. In the circadian rhythm Protocols and Walk-Thru sub-sections we learn that circadian rhythm entrainment affords us an opportunity to utilize shifting protocols to optimize the peaks and valleys of our rhythm with respect to desired performance and sleep times. These considerations are crucial for traveling athletes.
Aside from an ever-growing body of empirical evidence that increasingly demonstrates the benefits of optimal sleep and, more often, the negative impacts of poor sleep quality on cardiovascular physiology, metabolism, muscle endurance, and training recovery, a number of anecdotal stories about elite athletes have surfaced. Lebron James, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer and others have voiced their well-placed appreciation for sleep optimization as an actual performance-enhancement strategy at some point in their careers. The Stanford Men's Basketball team took a serious look at performance and found robust associations between increased sleep quality and better performance, faster reaction times, and feeling more energized. Their players exhibited a 5% increase in sprint times for suicides and a rise in free-throw accuracy of 9.2% when sleep quality was increased (to at least 8 or 9 hours sleep). Adolescent sleep is particularly vulnerable to truncated sleep quality relative to the 9 hours of sleep suggested for that age group (see, in particular, the last part of the Constructing Cognition subsection in the Sleep Architecture learning series to appreciate more alarming facts about adolescent sleep in our culture. This relates directly to adolescent athletes). Poor sleep is also associated with reduced sperm count and lower testosterone levels. But some of the greatest impacts from poor sleep (aside from the cognitive, emotional and psychiatric effects that we will glimpse later) have to do with the metabolic impacts of poor sleep quality.

It is well-established in sleep research that short planned sleep times invoke metabolic disturbances that translate into weight management difficulties, hunger/satiation hormone imbalances, and blood sugar issues. Even young and fit study participants have been observed to exhibit transient blood sugar abnormalities with decreases in insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance after only 3 consecutive days of slow-wave sleep suppression. These studies demonstrate that willpower alone is not enough to overcome the physiological handicaps of poor sleep quality.

We Screen For Common Disorders

Athletes are not immune to common sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and insomnia. In fact, the hyper-vigilance sometimes associated with insomnia can be a trait of some athletes. Sleep apnea may be common in power athletes with large necks.


Optimize Your Circadian Rhythm

There are many articles and tips that now discuss the importance of circadian rhythm timing, but many assume an average 'normal' time and target for everyone's rhythm. WE DON'T. We include a Circadian Rhythm learning section with Protocols to adjust your rhythm.


Follow Good Sleep Hygiene Patterns

Sleep hygiene tips are everywhere but few contextualize WHY your bedroom temperature matters so much and WHY light control is so important and HOW cognitive beliefs, behaviors, and reflexes about sleep can be put to use, instead of worry.


Educate Yourself About The Triad

Sleep, exercise and diet form a triad. We utilize The TriNourish System to assess the status of your integrated triad baseline and we provide additional learning opportunities to teach you how sleep impacts the body's nutrient use priorities during exercise.

Follow Through and Finish Strong

If you have not done so already, begin the Nourish Sleep process with a rapid assessment to screen for common sleep disorder features and understand how to proceed if you suspect a disorder. Ruling out this large potential drain on your sleep quality (and health in general) is the first step for any prioritized sleep optimization program. The next step is circadian rhythm and sleep architecture optimization. It is at that stage that the clinical process usually ends, but we pick up the rest of the sleep story by educating you on common beliefs and behaviors that radically deteriorate sleep quality but do not rise to the threshold of a formal clinical disorder. Like vitamin deficiencies, the clinical sector must be concerned with life-threatening thresholds, not the additional requirements for thriving. Yet unlike vitamin supplementation, sleep is not an optional addition in a basket of healthy choices to select from. It is the cornerstone of health.

The Tri-Nourish System

When sleep quality has been adequately assessed and understood, move on to assess baseline aspects of the integrated triad of exercise, nutrition & sleep through the TriNourish Learning platform. The TriNourish System provides a set of baseline scores for your sleep quality and diet-and-exercise pattern subdomains.

Nutrient utilization in athletes and serious fitness enthusiasts is very different than nutrient utilization in individuals seeking weight loss or weight-management. Because of these differences— and because poor sleep generally imparts a chronic stress-like hormonal environment to the body of athletes and non-athletes alike, Tri-Nourish has developed a learning series for athletes, enthusiasts and trainers to learn the fuel-use sequential steps (F.U.S.S.) that the body goes through during various real world situations. Access to the F.U.S.S. Module is available on the Tri-Nourish Learning platform.

Context Matters.