Why Athletes Can’t Catch a Wink
During the month of August, the world watched as incredible athletes competed for highest honors in the Rio Olympic games. Athletics were on the brain for virtually everyone — whether it was watching Simone Biles doing work on the vault or getting our own athletic routines in gear. For athletes of any experience level, everything from diet to training to emotional well-being comes into play before a big race or a championship game — but there’s one aspect of health that’s often overlooked: sleep.
Naturally, athletes are under extreme pressure before big events, and sleeping conditions certainly play a role in performance the next day. According to Sleep Fatigue, sleep can impact athletic success in myriad ways. One study shows that a single all-nighter can negatively impact reaction times by over 300 percent. A different study from the University of California showed that youth athletes were more susceptible to injury during games or races after a sleep of fewer than six hours. And the Major League Baseball Association sponsored a study that concluded decreased sleep overtime leads to shorter athletic careers for baseball players.
With the incredible value placed on sports and the resulting pressure to succeed, sleep can be hard to come by. Here are a few reasons (conventional and not) athletes might had a hard time getting the rest they need. Check it out below — honestly, it’s amazing that they even make it around the track in spite of it all.
1. Anxiety / Stress Sure, the average person might toss and turn before a big presentation or a first date — but before a race? You better believe athletes are outrageously, nail-bitingly, freaking-out nervous. It’s another kind of pressure entirely. Up against competition, watched by an audience, under heaps of pressure to perform, anxiety before a competition is bound to creep in for athletes of any sport.
According to Lifehacker, your body can induce stress and anxiety whenever and wherever — whether that’s during the day or at night. If you’re facing a stressor like a big event or looming discomfort, your brain will create a ‘fight or flight’ release of cortisol, and can mimic that pattern even after you’ve been removed from that stressor or are doing something else entirely. This causes that “waking in the middle of the night with a jolt” feeling we’ve all had. What’s more is this problem creates a vicious cycle — you then stress about getting sleep when you’re not, and the cycle can continue for the remainder of the night.
You can see how this might especially impact the sleep cycles of athletes. The easiest remedy? Meditate, read, and visualize a huge trophy. Works every time.
2. Exertion We’ve all heard that exercise is directly related to a better night’s sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, exercise causes an increase in body temperature, and the body’s re-calibration after exercise is completed (i.e., cooling down) can promote falling asleep. It also decreases arousal, anxiety, and symptoms of depression — aka it chills you out enough to get some shut eye. But for athletes training hours every day, can exercise actually negatively impact sleep?
The answer is yes, to a degree. As Peak Fitness explains, exercising too close to bedtime can increase levels of cortisol and adrenaline, making energy higher and sleep harder to come by. But even overexercising throughout the day is dangerous. Excessive endurance exercise, like long-distance running or swimming, will induce your body’s stress responses to elevate heart rate, alertness, and blood flow to your muscles. Cortisol especially can impact sleep — it’s usually at its highest in the morning and lowest when you go to bed, helping you fall asleep. But higher cortisol levels later in the day can influence your ability to fall asleep. Eventually, extreme exercise could even cause chronically elevated stress hormone levels, which has longer term impacts.
3. Timing and Jet Lag It seems obvious, but athletes traveling to a different city to compete are likely to experience jet lag and exhaustion. Jet lag occurs when traveling between time zones form an imbalance in our body’s “biological clock.” The backstory: our bodies follow circadian rhythms, which are punctuated and dictated by our body’s central temperature and hormones. These biological factors are impacted by light exposure, which signal when we should sleep and wake.
But traveling to a new time zone causes a disruption in our circadian rhythms, and we’re slow to adjust to taking cues from sun at different hours. Essentially, our bodies signal that it’s time to sleep when in reality, it could be 3 o’clock in the afternoon — or they feel wide awake at 2 o’clock in the morning. While many athletes arrive 10 days prior to their events — giving them more time to resynchronize their biological clocks — unfamiliarity with bedtimes and sleep customs could theoretically impact success. Plus, some athletes could be disturbed by the timing of their races or games. If athletes are used to training in the morning and get scheduled for an evening event, they’re faced with circumventing their own habits to achieve the best performance possible. Olympian Usain Bolt even admitted he is not a morning person. While we’ve all experienced trying to work out in a different time zone, when the stakes are as high as they are for athletes, jet lag can seriously impact their rest.
While sleep is tough to come by for all of us, athletes are up against some major obstacles. Improving sleep long-term is a complex process, and necessitates an individualized approach. However, as technology, science, and innovation around sleep continues to grow, we’re bound to see major improvement and performance enhancement for all — athlete or not.