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Why sleep affects your sports performance

By March 31, 2014No Comments

When deadlines loom, the schedule gets packed, and late evenings seem to be the norm, it’s usually sleep that suffers. One look at the mountains of research conducted over the last 40 years however shows that sleep should be the last thing to go. This is particularly true when you are strength training, involved in a competitive sport or recovering from an injury.

When clients don’t seem to be recovering well from injuries, and even those clients who come to me with chronic pain from excessive seated posture, the first questions I ask are about the quality and – more importantly – consistency of rest. We all know that the fitness industry is booming in Hong Kong with boutique gyms opening seemingly on every corner. These facilities offer cutting edge techniques and all the latest supplements. Sure it will cost you plenty, but you will be fast tracked to success, right? We all wish it worked this way. Working hard and being consistent, tracking results and paying a close eye to nutrition is paramount but when it comes to making gains and reaching ultimate potential the most important “vitamin” or “supplement” that’s lacking can’t be bought or sold. If you are not meeting your goals in the gym or field, or not recovering from injuries or hard training, it’s likely that your lack of zzzzzz’s is to blame.

This is not a lecture, it’s a reminder. Your body responds to strength training by repairing the damaged tissues and adapting the nervous system to respond to heavier loads or increased duration of exercise. It can’t do this during the day when you are being taxed in many different ways. The bridge between the nervous system and the endocrine system is the hypothalamus, a small almond-sized structure in the brain that links these two systems via the pituitary gland. This area is negatively impacted when sleep is disrupted, affecting hormones and important neurotransmitters alike. Growth hormone for example is essential to our health. It is the prime catalyst for tissue healing and growth and also helps to lower cortisol levels, a primary stress hormone that, when elevated, breaks down proteins and slows the overall immune response that is needed to rebuild tissue and support the health of the nervous system. Cortisol can also interfere with insulin sensitivity which, when lowered, causes the body to store fat – often in the areas where we don’t want it.

You can see from this how vital growth hormone is. You also need to be aware that the majority of it is released at night. So again, the possible benefit of all the best personal trainers, physios, and world class nutritional products will be minimised if you don’t take the time to get 8 to 9 hours of good, restful sleep per night on a consistent basis.

Given that good sleep is so vital to our health, let’s review some simple pointers:

  • Establish a sleep-wake schedule and stick to it like glue, on weekends too if possible.
  • Remember to get regular exposure to sunlight; this ensures better production of melatonin later in the day.
  • Exercise early in the day if possible. Intensive exercise and exercising late in the day will stimulate the nervous system and be counterproductive to falling asleep.
  • Avoid both inactivity and over sleeping if at all possible. Getting the body into a regular routine will train the body to rest when it needs to do so.
  • Use supplements such as highly absorbable magnesium and tryptophan, or eat a small amount of gluten free, low glycemic carbohydrate to boost serotonin levels.
  • Avoid excessive or even moderate alcohol consumption and be cautious with caffeine intake.
  • And don’t forget to manage stress with techniques such as meditation, acupuncture, or my personal favorite: a session of Active Isolated Stretching. Stretching is shown to promote relaxation and reduce cortisol levels.

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