To be a top athlete means to always look for an edge over the competition. As athletic performance continues to be studied, physicians and trainers are finding new ways to maximize an athlete’s talents. While the primary focus for optimal performance is training, it’s important not to ignore another vital factor: sleep. Athletes are discovering just how crucial sleep is to their regimen. In this article, we’ll discuss how athletes utilize the often-overlooked benefits of sleep to help keep them on top of their game.

Sleep enhances athletic performance

Multiple studies across multiple sports have suggested that increased sleep quantity and improved sleep quality help athletes achieve their optimal performance. One Stanford study showed that mens basketball players who extended their sleep to 10 hours ran faster and shot better. Another study with swimmers showed they had a quicker reaction time off the diving block, when they got more sleep. A separate study showed tennis players had more accurate serves when they increased their sleep by nine hours a week. Furthermore, lack of sleep can lead to quicker exhaustion, slower decision making and higher risk for injury.

Eight hours may not be enough

Most adults have heard that eight is the magic number, when it comes to hours of sleep needed. While this may be true for the general population, top athletes tend to incorporate more in their sleep routine. LeBron James and Roger Federer both claim to sleep an average of 12 hours per day. Golf star Michelle Wie explains when I can I’ll sleep more than 12 hours, and I don’t feel very good if I get less than 10. Other star athletes like Usain Bolt, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova sleep up to 10 hours a day.

“Just as athletes need more calories than most people when they’re in training, they need more sleep, too,” says David Geier, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist. “Not getting enough sleep doesn’t only make you tired the next day,” Geier says, “it has a big impact on what’s happening inside your body.”

The power of napping

While there is some debate on the benefits of napping, many top athletes sleep routines include a midday snooze. In fact, the Boston Red Sox recently unveiled a nap room in their team clubhouse. Naps are an excellent tool for athletes in training and on game day as well,” explains Dan McCarthy, High Performance Consultant at USA Swimming. Studies have shown that daytime naps may actually enhance an athletes motor memory.

As a result, the napping athlete can more easily learn a new skill or technique to achieve their optimal performance. Though it’s usually advised to keep your nap brief, some athletes prefer to nap much longer on game day. Former NBA MVP Derrick Rose usually naps for three hours before every night game. Another former NBA MVP, Steve Nash, also enjoys a long game day nap. I’ll try to nap for as long as I can, Nash says. A half hour to two hours on game days is usually what it is.

Sleep technology to the rescue

The advancement of sleep technology can help athletes identify and address issues in their sleep routine. With the wave of digital sleep trackers hitting the market, athletes have more insight than ever into how sleep affects their performance. Digital sleep trackers allow athletes to track changes in their sleep stage distribution and patterns. Most importantly, this sleep technology can help athletes better evaluate their individualized sleep. An athlete may think they’re getting adequate sleep, but the sleep tracker can reveal signs of chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep trackers let athletes look beyond their number of hours of sleep to uncover real issues.

Sleep hygiene matters

Athletes that are serious about their sleep will take certain steps to ensure they get the quality of sleep needed to perform. The good news is these are steps any of us can, and should, take. Superstar quarterback Tom Brady has a strict sleep routine that seems to work. After all, he has seven rings to prove it. Brady makes sure not to eat close to bedtime. He also avoids exercising too late in the night, usually leaving a two to three hour window between working out and sleeping. He and his wife also make sure their bedroom is perfectly set up for sleep.

I like my room cool, dark, and as quiet as possible to make sure I get a great nights sleep, says Brady. Research suggests keeping your room around 65 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep. Furthermore, you should invest in blackout curtains to have your room stay as dark as possible while you sleep. Lastly, Brady suggests removing all distractions from your bedroom. Try turning off all your electronic devices at least half hour before going to sleep. This will let your mind wind down and prevent your phones blue light from keeping your awake.

The right mattress makes a huge difference

Mattresses come in different firmness levels to specifically fit your sleeping habits and position. You may have an expensive mattress that seems comfortable, but you’ll wake up sore, stiff, and achy if it’s not the right kind for you. If you’re a back sleeper, you’ll want a medium-firm mattress. Side sleepers need a mattress thats medium-soft. Conversely, those who sleep on their stomach should look into getting firm mattresses. Pairing the right mattress with your sleep position will help ensure your spine, neck and hips are properly aligned and supported. This can decrease your risk of injury when you’re training or playing.

Make sleep a priority

If you’re an athlete, it’s important to be proactive with your sleep routine and habits. As we discussed, there are several achievable steps you can take to improve your quality and quantity of sleep. Master your sleep to help master your game.

Drew Miller is Director of Marketing for Sit n Sleep, one of the largest mattress retailers in Southern California. The son of CEO/Owner Larry Miller, Drew marks the third generation of Millers to dedicate their lives to helping people sleep better. Drew suggests you take your time and do your research, or better yet speak to a sleep expert at Sit n Sleep!

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