Research scientists and sleep medicine doctors share the counsel they give to the fittest bodies.
Just because you don’t compete on the level of a professional athlete doesn’t mean you don’t want to employ the strategies they use to build those superior physiques. If you’re skimping on sleep, though, you may as well throw in the proverbial towel. “No matter how good your nutrition is, no matter how good your exercise routine is, if your sleep isn’t any good, the other two don’t matter—that’s a brave statement, but it’s true,” says James Maas, Ph.D., a sleep and performance expert who works with professional and collegiate athletes.
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Maas estimates 75 percent of athletes are deprived—which can lower immunity, alter cognition, slow reaction time, and lengthen recovery, he says. But until recently, athletes, physicians with little training in sleep medicine, and coaches who didn’t understand the shuteye/success link shared a blasé attitude toward sleep. Today, teams are smartening up, and even hiring sleep consultants.
“Athletes are always looking for the silver bullet—that ‘something’ that will make them play better than their opponents,” says Maas. “I think we have that silver bullet: sleep.”
Below, top sleep experts share their best sleep advice for athletes, specifically:
1. Do a 3-week early bedtime trial.
“There is no way to cheat sleep and still pursue optimal athletic performance. There will be a price to be paid. I’d challenge people to prioritize sleep for three weeks. Go to bed when you feel tired—there’s no rule about any bedtime being too early. Listen to your body. High-performance athletes are used to doing this. See how you feel during day and how you perform athletically. What happens is, people realize how powerful sleep can be, then they gladly elevate sleep on their list of priorities.” — Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D., President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), and board-certified in sleep medicine and neurology
2. Track sleep like you track performance.
“Athletes measure daytime statistics but tend to completely ignore what’s as if—if not more—important: what happens to the body at night. People tend to overestimate how much they sleep by 47 minutes—they’re not trying to lie, the brain just does not know. I encourage athletes to monitor sleep through devices like Beddit, a mattress strip that measures heart rate, breathing, and every second of your night. It gives you hints as to how you screwed up. With permission, a coach can see exactly how an athlete’s night was.” — James Maas, Ph.D.
3. Drop the temperature.
“Athletes often ‘sleep hot’. They sweat a lot at night—that has to do with metabolic activity being higher. So a cooler bed environment makes a lot of sense.” — W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, who consults elite athletes on sleep
4. Build in wind-down time.
“Prioritize a regular 20- to 30-minute routine before bed to help your body anticipate sleep—journal, meditate, or read a book. I also recommend light stretching or yoga and often suggest partnering this with breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic system, which can aid in relaxing and calming your body.” — Cheri Mah, a sleep and athletic performance research scientist at the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University who advises teams in the NBA, NFL, and NHL
5. Unplug 4 hours before bed
“We speculate on the amount of time that you should cut out electronics before bed—but my own personal advice is to eliminate it 4 hours before bedtime. Athletes need to be developing skills where they are not engaged, so they can relax. There’s no question that the light on these devices has an impact on sleep, but I think the inner activity and interaction they cause is more of an issue.” —Charles H. Samuels M.D., medical director at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary who has served as a sleep and performance consultant for the Calgary Flames
6. Practice calming your mind.
"One attribute that makes athletes good at what they do is that they’re detailed oriented—they don’t leave stones unturned. But a lot of the athletes I work with struggle to go from the mode they’re in on the field to being able to fall asleep. This can be practiced. The idea that you ‘can’t shut your brain off’ is not your lot in life. You can say, ‘I can’t hit a curve ball’ or you can say, ‘I’m going to get busy learning how to hit a curve ball.’ You just have to work on it. A device called themuse, a brain sensing headband that gives you feedback about if and when your mind is settled, is a great tool.” — W. Christopher Winter, M.D.
By Cassie Shortsleeve