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Sleep and Recovery for Athletic Achievement

How Athletes Can Optimize Rest and Recovery

We all know sleep is important. But when it comes to athletic performance and recovery, is more sleep always better? Or does the quality of your sleep matter more than the quantity? As a weekend warrior and parent of a budding student athlete, you want to make sure you and your kids are getting the best sleep possible. Let’s take a look at what the latest research says about getting good shuteye.


Hitting the Snooze Button Won’t Cut It

You’ve probably heard that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. But that’s not the whole story. A new study published in the journal Children reviews decades of research on slumber. It finds that sleep quality matters more than simply racking up hours in bed.


Lead researcher Dr. Jun Kohyama explains, “We should pay more attention to obtaining sleep of good quality rather than duration.”1 Marks of high-quality sleep include feeling rested and refreshed, not sleepy during the day, and getting adequate time in deep, restorative sleep stages.


So hitting snooze and trying to eke out a bit more shuteye probably won’t cut it. If your sleep is restless or constantly interrupted, you won’t reap the full benefits, even if you’re technically asleep longer. Quality rules over quantity.


Sleep Cycles Are Key

To understand why quality matters, it helps to look at sleep cycles. Each night, you cycle through different stages of sleep about 4-6 times. The deepest stage is a slow wave or “delta” sleep. This is when your body repairs muscles, boosts immunity, releases growth hormones, and consolidates memories. 


Next is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is when you dream, and information gets coded into long-term memory—light stages 1 and 2 round out the cycle. Your body needs to properly cycle through all the stages for restorative sleep.


If you routinely have poor-quality sleep, you’re probably not spending enough time in those critical delta and REM stages. Even if you’re asleep for longer, you’ll end up feeling exhausted the next day. Plus, you’ll likely start seeing a decrease in the quality of your performance in sports, work, school, and other essential aspects of your life.


Let’s say you manage to eke out an extra 30 minutes of sleep by hitting snooze.However if those bonus minutes are spent in light stage 1 sleep, not deep delta. That might actually leave you feeling groggier, with a worse quality sleep overall!


Put another way, sleep is like a gourmet meal: it’s not about stuffing yourself; it’s about savoring each bite. Similarly, 4-5 complete sleep cycles (with each cycle lasting about 90 minutes) are more rejuvenating than a long, interrupted slumber. These cycles are crucial for physical repair and mental sharpness - your toolkit for nailing that game or acing that test.


Timing Matters Too

Sleep quality also relies on consistency: It’s not just what you do, but when you do it. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule trains your body’s internal clock, enhancing sleep quality. Irregular patterns? They’re like confusing your body’s natural rhythm. Consistency in sleep timing is your secret weapon for better performance and health.


Research shows that keeping a regular sleep schedule helps synchronize your circadian rhythm. This internal body clock regulates the timing of your sleep-wake cycle. It controls hormone release, body temperature, and other crucial functions.


When your circadian rhythm is aligned, you’ll find it easier to fall asleep, sleep more soundly, and wake feeling refreshed. The opposite is true if your rhythm gets out of sync. This misalignment can happen from shifting sleep schedules. It contributes to poor quality sleep.


So, while you can occasionally sleep in on weekends, drastic changes confuse your body. For the best quality sleep, keep bed and wake times within about 30 minutes, even on off days. This regular rhythm maximizes time spent in restorative stages.

 How Much Sleep Do Athletes Really Need?

We know quality matters. But how much sleep is enough for athletes? Recent guidelines recommend:

·       School-age children: 9-12 hours per night

·       Teens: 8-10 hours per night 

·       Adults: 7-9 hours per night


Within those ranges, individual needs vary. The “right” amount for you depends on many factors like age, training load, genetics, etc. Don’t get hung up on a magic number. Focus instead on feeling consistently rested and restored each morning.


A good benchmark is to sleep as long as needed to complete 4-5 sleep cycles. Most cycles last 90-120 minutes. So, aim for about 7.5 hours as a minimum. For intense training periods, err toward the higher end of the range. Young athletes need longer sleep for recovery, so encourage 9+ hours.


Pay attention to how you feel overall. If you (or your child) struggle to get moving most mornings, have trouble concentrating, or feel exhausted later in the day, try extending sleep time. More cycles may be needed.

Parental Support for Children

Parents play a crucial role in encouraging healthy sleep habits. It all starts with being a positive role model. Practice healthy sleep habits yourself. Develop the discipline of stopping whatever activity you’re doing, even worthwhile ones, to begin your bedtime routine. Ensure that your child’s training schedule includes ample time for rest and recovery. Most importantly, maintain a peaceful home environment in the evenings to enable a smooth transition from one day to the next. This could come in the form of an established and regular “wind-down” time before bed, reducing stimulating activities and encouraging quiet play or reading.


Remember, improving sleep quality is a journey. It requires consistent effort and slight adjustments as per individual needs. For athletes, weekend warriors, and young students, good sleep is not just about physical rest – it’s about mental rejuvenation as well.

Improve Sleep Quality By Optimizing “Sleep Hygiene”

Now that you know why quality trumps quantity, how can you improve yours? Start by optimizing your “sleep hygiene” with these tips broken down for everyone, for athletes (including weekend warriors and aspiring professional athletes) and students:


1. Establish a Consistent Bedtime Routine

For Everyone: Consistency is key. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends, helps regulate your body’s internal clock.


For Athletes: Consider adding relaxation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation to your routine, as they can help in winding down after intense training.


For Young Students: A calming bedtime routine might include reading a book or a warm bath. This helps signal to their body that it’s time to wind down.


2. Optimize Your Sleep Environment

For Everyone: Ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. This means a cool, dark, and quiet room. Investing in blackout curtains and a comfortable mattress and pillows can make a significant difference.


For Athletes: Pay special attention to muscle comfort. If you have sore muscles, consider a mattress that offers good support.


For Young Students: Keep the bedroom primarily for sleep. Limit the presence of stimulating activities like playing video games or watching TV in the bedroom.

3. Mindful Eating and Drinking

For Everyone: Avoid energy drinks, caffeine or caffeine supplements, and alcohol close to bedtime. These can disrupt your sleep cycle.


For Athletes: You might need a small, nutrient-rich snack post-evening training, but avoid anything too heavy or high in sugar.


For Young Students: Ensure they don’t consume sugary drinks or caffeine-laden beverages in the evening.


4. Manage Pre-sleep Activities

For Everyone: Limit exposure to screens (phones, tablets, computers) at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted can interfere with the natural development of melatonin in your body and impact your ability to fall asleep.


For Athletes: Reviewing performance videos or planning the next day’s training schedule is better done earlier in the evening, not right before bed.


For Young Students: Encourage calming activities like reading (a physical book, not digital. Otherwise, the blue light will counter the effects of reading to relax) or listening to soft music before bed instead of video games or TV.


5. Physical Activity During the Day

For Everyone: Regular physical activity can help you fall asleep faster and enjoy deeper sleep.


For Athletes: Balance intense workouts with adequate rest periods. Overtraining can lead to restless sleep.


For Young Students: Encourage regular play and physical activity. It’s crucial for their overall health and promotes better sleep.


6. Mind the Mind

For Everyone: Stress and worry are major culprits in disrupting sleep. Practices like meditation, journaling, or light yoga before bed can help.


For Athletes: Mental relaxation is as important as physical relaxation. Techniques like visualization can be beneficial.


For Young Students: Teach them simple relaxation techniques or deep breathing exercises to calm their minds before sleep.


Focusing on these sleep hygiene basics helps ensure you cycle properly through all sleep stages. You’ll spend more time in deep, delta sleep to aid muscle recovery. You also get sufficient REM sleep to boost focus, memory, and learning.


Quality Over Quantity: The Takeaway

We all want quick fixes to boost performance. But logging longer hours in bed isn’t the answer. Research conclusively shows that sleep quality matters more than quantity. For the best recovery, make consistent sleep schedules a priority. Optimize your sleep hygiene and cycles. Don’t sacrifice rest for more training time.


Sleep gives you a proven edge. So be sure to get enough quality shuteye to perform your best, both on and off the field. Keep these tips in mind as you optimize your sleep habits. Sweet dreams!



1. “Which Is More Important for Health: Sleep Quantity or Sleep Quality?” Jun Kohyama, 24 June, 2021.



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