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Recovery (part 2): Sleep

Following our introduction to recovery, we’re going to continue the series looking at some of the research around many popular recovery methods and offer some practical take-aways that you can begin to apply right away.

First up on the list is sleep – one of the most important influences on recovery, one of the simplest to address and yet is often the most overlooked of all performance variables.


Sleep is a needed resource for psychological and physiological wellbeing, during which time many of the bodies more potent repair and recovery processes are kicked into overdrive.  It is generally accepted that the primary purpose of sleep is restoration – To recover from previous wake-period operations and/or prepare for functioning in the subsequent wakefulness period. 

Sleep is also vitally important for memory consolidation and metabolic healthby potentially modifying energy intake and expenditure which can undermine dietary efforts.

An individual’s recent sleep history (consisting of both duration and quality) can have a dramatic influence on daytime functioning. Research has firmly established that sleeping less than 6 hours per night for four or more consecutive nights can: 

1. Impair cognitive performance and mood

2. Heighten risk of illness and injury

3. Disturb metabolic health, appetite regulation and immune function

There are many reasons why sleep habits may be negatively affected, some of which include:

Stress, nervousness, thinking, worrying, planning.

Illness

Sudden change to routine

Unsuitable diet/nutrient deficiency

Poor sleep habits and environment (eg noise, lighting, temperature, late television watching, late caffeine use, late activity). 

In addition to the above, Erlacher et al. 2011 asked 632 german athletes from various sports about their sleep habits leading up to important events or competitions, with the results showing that: 

  • 66% slept worse than normal at least once prior to an important competition
  • 80% reported problems falling asleep
  • 43% reported waking early, and
  • 32% reported waking up through the night

Factors identified as reasons for poor sleep included:

  • Thoughts about competition (77%)
  • Nervousness about competition (60%)
  • Unusual surroundings (29%)
  • Noise in the room (17%) 

The value of quality sleep is clear and it is easy to see how it can be impacted by many of the above variables which we all face from time to time. What isn’t so easy though, is how best to mitigate these factors to ensure that you get a good night sleep and subsequently prevent the associated performance decline from sleep loss.

Suggestions for improving sleep:

1. Develop a ‘POWER-OFF POLICY’ before bed

Switch off tv, computers, tablets, and smartphones 1-2 hours before sleep time. These will disturb the production of hormones that prepare you for sleep. 

2. Develop a ‘Wind down’ routine before bed

Slow down and de-stress as much as possible before bed and try to establish consistent sleep and wake times. A shower before bedtime has been shown to improve sleep onset latency. Research has also shown that almost half of all insomnia cases are linked to stress or emotional upset. Avenues to reduce stress are highly individual and situation dependent, so finding ways to reduce stress are paramount to improving sleep, and long-term health and wellness. Some proven strategies include: 

  • Exercise 
  • Deep breathing exercises 
  • Meditation
  • Daily journaling 
  • Gratitude journaling
  • Taking a walk
  • Being outside/sun exposure
  • Social activities / being with friends and loved ones

Habits and Environment

3. A quiet sleep space is a key

If noise can’t be avoided try using headphones with instrumental music at a low volume, or keep a fan on for an acutely distracting ‘white noise.’

4. Temperature, darkness, and clothing

Approximately 18 degrees Celsius is a cool room temperature that has been shown to help comfortable sleep occurrence. Thick bedding and clothing must also be avoided if it causes overheating. A dark environment with limited lighting can also help the body recognise that it’s night time and time to begin the process of preparing for sleep. 

5. Coffee and heavy meals

Avoid caffeine, big meals and heavy amounts of liquid before bed. 

6. Take Naps Where You Can & Need To

Naps can be beneficial to catch up on lost sleep, however, avoid them later into the afternoon if it might impact your regular sleep time. Blanchfield et al. 2018 recently showed that a short afternoon nap improves endurance performance in runners that obtain less than 7 hrs of nighttime sleep. Napping might be an important strategy to optimise endurance exercise in other athletic and occupational scenarios when sleep is compromised (eg long-haul, intensified training etc).