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Why Athletes Need to Hit the Mattress

By Molly Newman

For faster race times, higher energy and that all-around healthy glow, you plan your meals and workouts down to the last carrot stick and push-up. But you’re probably neglecting the part of your training that heals injuries, rebuilds muscle, and occupies up to a third of your life. Whether you’re a runner, a biker, a climber or any other kind of athlete, getting enough of the right kind of sleep is critical for optimal performance.

Y You Need Your Zs

It’s easy to sacrifice sleep when more important things—work, time with friends, an early morning run—get in the way. But without sufficient high-quality sleep, your performance is impaired. A University of Chicago study showed that after just six nights of sleep deprivation, subjects metabolized glucose less efficiently and had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The result: More trouble finishing workouts, a higher risk of injury from overtraining, and a lead-footed feeling that turns running or cycling into a chore. Eight hours a night may not always be attainable, but it’s an excellent goal to keep in mind.

Set a Rhythm

An ideal sleep rhythm is like a perfect cycling cadence: easy to maintain over long periods of time, and familiar enough that you can keep it up without having to think too hard about it. Establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time, and try to stick to them even on weekends. If it’s tough to peel yourself out of bed on a Saturday, try scheduling early morning outdoor get-togethers with your friends. Giving yourself something to look forward to makes it much easier to leave the comfort of your bed behind.

Trouble falling asleep? Artificial light (including the TV) interferes with your natural sleep cycle, especially the deep slow-wave sleep that’s essential for improved memory and repair of exercise-damaged tissue. Try listening to soothing music or a guided meditation instead. I like the “Falling Asleep” episode, free to download at

Monitor your nightly sleep cycles with the wristwatch-style SleepTracker. It senses your slight movements as you move through cycles of lighter and deeper sleep. You can program it to wake you during a specified interval when your sleep is at its lightest, helping you hop out of bed refreshed and ready for the day. After using the SleepTracker for several nights, I discovered that meditating just before bed helped me sleep most soundly, while getting up just after sunrise guaranteed a high-energy start to my day. $150

Power Napping

It happens to all of us: that post-lunch slump that leaves you yawning and reaching for another cup of coffee. Though work schedules may not always permit it, a 20- to 30-minute nap is the best way to recharge. Who knows? Once you point out to your boss that many researchers have found that a short nap boosts self-confidence, performance level and even brain activity, you might find power napping tolerated (or even encouraged) at your office.

Keep your sleep break under half an hour, though. Longer stretches of daytime sleep, rather than refreshing you, are likely to leave you even more fatigued than you were pre-nap.

On the Road

Going out of town for a competition? Don’t let long travel times and lumpy hotel beds throw your sleep schedule off track.

If you’re traveling by air, especially across multiple time zones, jet lag can be a serious performance-crashing factor. Sync your watch to your destination a day or two ahead of schedule and adjust your mealtimes and bedtimes accordingly.  Flight time makes a difference too. An Australian study of 85 athletes showed that those who traveled in the evening and slept on their flights experienced less jet lag and fatigue on arrival.

Once you’ve arrived, fight the urge to derail your sleep schedule with a daytime nap. Try rebooting with a brisk walk outdoors instead. Exposure to natural light helps reset your body clock to local time.

Sleep Solutions

Many athletes rely on caffeine to boost alertness. A double-shot latte in the morning is fine, but avoid drinking anything “leaded” after 3:00 p.m. It takes up to 12 hours for your body to break down a standard dose of caffeine, meaning afternoon coffee breaks can translate to restless and unsatisfying sleep.

Over-the-counter sleep medications might put you straight to sleep, but they may leave you feeling groggy the next day. Melatonin, a natural sleep hormone produced by the body, can help you fall asleep and rest more soundly. Look for a pharmacy-grade, time-release formula if you want to give melatonin supplements a try.

Need a drug-free, no-noise solution to get you on the road to Slumberland? The NightWave Sleep Assistant projects a soothing, pulsing blue light that’s visible in any darkened room. Synchronize your breathing with one of its programmed cycles to fall asleep gently and naturally. I found the Mood Softener mode, designed for a quick relaxation break, to be a great de-stresser during a busy workday. $50

Molly Newman lives in Portland, Oregon, where she hikes, walks and runs whenever it isn’t raining­—and often when it is. A contributor to Outdoor Sports Guide since 2009, she also hosts regular trivia nights and homeschools her two sons.


About Author

Molly writes about fitness and nutrition from her home in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not at her desk, you can find her teaching history, hiking the Gorge, or hitting the archery range.

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