It’s not easy being a student-athlete. On one hand, you get turned into a meme; on the other, you face near-impossible standards in both your studies and your training, leading to burnout and exhaustion. Juggling demands from coaches, trainers and teachers—not to mention friends and family—can take you to the very end of your rope on a daily basis. After a while, the strain takes a toll, and many people find themselves unable to perform at the level they want, whether physically or mentally. The good news is that solving these challenges doesn’t involve adding yet another thing to the calendar. In fact, it may involve taking some things off. Getting regular high-quality sleep can massively improve both mental well-being and overall physical health.
It starts with recovery. During deep sleep, several processes happen that contribute to repair and rebuild mind and body. It starts as energy consumption decreases, which allows fuel consumed throughout the day to be more efficiently directed towards building muscle. Along with food, growth hormones released during sleep contribute to muscle rebuilding and recovery, all while the brain is able to totally recharge.
That mental rest for your brain is key, as it turns out. Particularly for heavy workouts like snatches, cleans and squats, your brain needs to be at an optimal level of focus and drive to set PRs. A well-rested brain is also one that’s better able to pay attention to detail, which is key not only on competition day, but also when working through form corrections and complex movements. Quality sleep has other benefits, too. It can prevent sickness and help you heal more quickly from it. Studies have even shown that consistent sleep can increase the force output of compound movements.
Despite the unequivocal evidence that sleep is necessary for peak mental and physical performance, the reality is that carving out 8 hours of ‘dead time’ in a packed schedule can be difficult. While nothing can substitute for getting the amount of sleep your body needs, there are several things you can do to maximize the quality of whatever sleep you do get. Improving sleep quality involves discipline and routine, just like your training regimen—in fact, sleep should be viewed as an extension of that regimen. Here are our top four tips for improving sleep quality:
- Get in a routine. You may remember having a strict bedtime when you were a kid—as it turns out, people of all ages improve the quality and efficiency of their sleep when in a bedtime routine. That includes not only a consistent sleep schedule, but also establishing a ritual or two before going to bed, like stretching or reading some favorite quotes. These help signal to your body that it’s time to fall asleep, meaning you spend less time tossing and turning.
- Regulate caffeine and alcohol intake. Caffeine essentially blocks your body from communicating sleepiness to the brain, acting as a stimulant. While it has many positive effects, consuming caffeine within 5-6 hours of going to bed can keep you awake. Alcohol, while not a stimulant, can disrupt your sleep cycle and prevent full recovery.
- End screentime a half-hour before going to bed. Even dimly lit screens can inhibit the release of melatonin, the hormone that helps your body maintain its circadian rhythm. Nighttime exposure to screens has also been linked to increased lethargy and depression.
- Get your environment right. Since body temperature lowers during sleep, give yourself a leg up by turning on a fan or bumping the A/C down. And eliminate as much light as possible. While screens have the most dramatic impact on sleep quality, any dim light can disrupt sleep.
It may seem counterintuitive to add more downtime to your schedule in order to achieve greater performance and balance. But the evidence is clear. Strength starts with sleep.
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