Sleep, without a question or doubt, is the most important factor affecting performance and recovery. The importance of sleep is confirmed by copious amounts of research done throughout all levels of athletics.
With lengthy practice schedules, early morning weight room sessions, academics, and extracurricular activities, there is little to no time left for quality sleep for high school and college athletes. The day-to-day schedule of minimal sleep is less than ideal for optimal sleep makes it even more important for athletes to know strategies that can help enhance the quality of sleep.
Athletes understand the importance of sleep, but understanding and doing are two separate topics. Instead of just giving them formal education and the benefits of sleep, we also need to educate them on the applicable strategies that result in improved sleep quality and duration.
While not the primary focus of this article, these basics for sleep will help set a base for the strategies and tips later mentioned.
Basic guidelines such as,
– Sleeping 7-9 hours per day. This includes total time slept, so naps are added to this time.
– Sleeping in a cold, dark, and quiet space to set you up for the best quality of sleep possible.
– Developing a nighttime routine for yourself to help your body get on a consistent schedule and assist you in falling to sleep faster and easier.
Even if you are confident that you have the basics down, you cannot be certain of the quality of your sleep unless you are tracking it with a wearable. There are several other performance indicators of sleep besides duration, and when making changes with new strategies, we cannot say for certain whether it is actually good or bad.
The basics are what we are looking to achieve, and if followed, then you are already ahead of the vast majority. It may be overkill for some, but if possible and you are serious about improving your performance and recoverability, I recommend investing in a sleep tracker.
There are several wearables that can do this, and while I have no dog in this fight, I would get a higher-quality device that doesn’t disrupt your sleep from having it on you throughout the night.
A wearable can track many sleep performance indicators such as duration of sleep, stages of sleep held, resting heart rate, sleep efficiency, and so much more if you can find the value. The real value, though, is found in tracking behaviors and trends in your life that affect your sleep.
Below are some examples of what a sleep tracker can help show you about your previous night’s sleep, and many can also go into a weekly or monthly view giving you potential insight into your behaviors over a specific period of time.
Sleep strategies are utilized to improve your quality and duration of sleep by allowing you to find the methods that fit your schedule and lifestyle best. Everything listed, while it may be beneficial on paper, is only helpful assuming it fits into your personal situation.
High school and college athletics come with unique scheduling. That is why I prefer strategies and guidelines over rules. Guidelines are a little different for everyone, and unless you have a history of tracking, it cannot be said for certain the exact magnitude of effect had, though I can say confidently that none of these will hurt your sleep performance.
The 10-3-2-1 sleep count is an easy guideline for athletes to remember the behaviors leading up to bedtime.
Cut off Caffeine
A recommended guideline is to cut off caffeine 10 hours before you go to sleep. This can differ for some depending on tolerance to caffeine, but not much. Just because you are able to fall asleep drinking a cup of coffee late at night or having an energy drink in the afternoon doesn’t mean that it isn’t disrupting your overall quality of sleep. That goes with all of the guidelines that will be listed, but athletes feel strong about this and take pride in being able to snooze after downing pre-workout as if it’s an accomplishment.
Along with decaffeinated coffee, there are several pre-workout options that are caffeine and stimulant-free, so if you do train later in the evening and still want a little kick, you can do so minus the caffeine!
What time you eat in relation to your sleep schedule is important for a good night’s sleep and is not mentioned enough. Now, this strategy is especially flexible, but a recommendation is 3 hours before bed, no food, or, let’s say, large meals.
This is because if you eat a large meal before you go to sleep, digestion can disrupt your sleep quality and even your ability to fall asleep as well!
Although I wouldn’t want my athletes to eat a large steak dinner directly before bed, I do think a lighter nighttime snack before bed can be beneficial. Many athletes aren’t eating enough throughout the day, on top of the fact that a later practice or training session would require some sort of post-recovery meal.
This is dependent upon schedule, so 3 hours may not be realistic, but keep in mind the effects of eating large meals late at night on your sleep.
Another guideline that is more difficult to have high school and college athletes abide by is stopping work 2 hours before bedtime. Whether it be a full 2 hours or not is beside the point that you should allow yourself a block of time before bed where you do not have to stress over work and can begin to unwind.
This is the first sign to your body that you have initiated your bedtime routine and you are preparing for sleep. I understand that there are times when this is not possible, finals week, the night before a major mid-term exam that you need additional study time for, etc. Those events, though, are all outliers, and you should shoot for giving yourself a 2-hour break before bed during your normal school routine.
No Screen Time
If you could only choose to follow one of these strategies to have immediate effects on your sleep quality and ease of getting to bed, I would recommend cutting off your screen time 1 hour before bed.
Continuously checking your phone every 5 seconds or staring at a bright tv or screen before bed can ruin an entire night’s worth of sleep. Put the phone on the charger and out of reach. Use a white noise machine instead of your tv for “background noise.” Do whatever you need to do to fit this strategy.
When evaluating your sleep and working to improve it, you need to alter your behavior. Behavior is what will lead to habits being formed, whether they are beneficial or detrimental. Though once you have begun setting up positive, beneficial habits through the strategies, you could use some sleep supplementation if you think you need or want the additional help.
Similar to nutrition supplementation, it does you no good to take supplements if you eat like a child to start. If your behavior and habits aren’t set, then the supplements are futile. It’s in the word; they are meant to supplement your diet or, in this case, your sleep, so I do not typically recommend sleep supplements if you aren’t even attempting any of the 10-3-2-1 guidelines first.
Melatonin is a natural hormone that your body produces to aid in sleep. It is a safe, affordable option that can help you get to sleep and improve your quality of sleep.
I would recommend starting with the minimum effective dosage, being around 5mg, and slowly increasing it if needed 10-20mg, especially if you are larger. It isn’t necessarily a danger if you take more than 5mg; I just prefer you to get your strategies down first.
Zinc magnesium aspartate (ZMA) is a supplement that will not only help you get to bed on time but also have positive effects on physical performance and recoverability. A majority of athletes are lacking in both minerals, so getting a dose more of zinc and magnesium is a good start, and it is also a safe and affordable supplement.
While it may not be a pill or found in the supplement section, the use of non-caffeinated herbal nighttime teas can help greatly improve your sleep. Whether it be from the active ingredients in the tea themselves or just the beginning of a nighttime routine set when you start the preparation, this is something I recommend and have found great success with personally.
Sleep is the ultimate performance factor. Sleep leads to improved physical capabilities, mental clarity, and even injury reduction. High school and college athletes are greatly deprived of sleep and could have a better and more appropriate sleep strategy list.
The day-to-day lifestyle of the studious and social athlete may be difficult to fit everything in, but if you use the strategies and tips given, you will be better off not only in developing better sleep but also have an increased potential for performance on the field.