You aren’t alone if you’ve found yourself wondering whether there’s really a link between sleep and fitness.
After all, rest and activity are at opposite ends of the spectrum. There’s plenty of research showing that there is in fact a vital link between fitness and sleep – and it proves that without quality sleep, your efforts in the gym won’t count nearly as much.
What Sleep Does for Your Body
You’re logging plenty of miles on the road or treadmill, and you’re pushing yourself with weight-bearing exercises, set after set. You’re taking the right supplements, watching your macros, and optimizing hydration. You’re doing a lot of things right! But something may be missing. If you’re not prioritizing sleep, now is a great time to start.
Sleep gives your body the opportunity to recover from training. While you’re logging those precious hours of shut-eye, your cells undergo important repairs.
Muscle growth takes place while you’re asleep too; in fact, with enough sleep, your body has an easier time producing the growth hormone (HGH) needed for building and maintaining desirable lean muscle mass.
Because sleep is essential for all of the body’s systems, athletes of every level and age need to make sleep a priority but its importance increases with age as well as exercise intensity. According to W. Christopher Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It, and president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, “When we are older, it helps us build lean muscle and helps our body repair when we have torn ourselves up during a hard workout.”
James Maas, Ph.D., is a sleep expert who helps collegiate and professional athletes optimize sleep and performance. Like Dr. Winter, Maas stresses the importance of sleep, and says that it could be the proverbial “silver bullet” when it comes to creating a regimen designed to enhance athletic performance.
“No matter how good your nutrition is, no matter how good your exercise routine is, if your sleep isn’t any good, the other two don’t matter,” he says.
Board-certified sleep medicine and neurology expert Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D, is past President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center.
“There’s no way to cheat sleep and still pursue optimal athletic performance,” he notes. “There will be a price to be paid. I’d challenge people to prioritize sleep for three weeks. Go to bed when you feel tired – there’s no rule about any bedtime being too early.
Listen to your body. High-performance athletes are used to doing this. See how you feel during the day and how you perform athletically. What happens is, people realize how powerful sleep can be, then they gladly elevate sleep on their list of priorities.”
In case you’re on the fence about prioritizing sleep, it’s worth noting that sleep affects parts of the body you can’t see. Without adequate sleep, you are at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and metabolic dysfunction.
Insomnia can contribute to problems with mental health, and over the long term, it can be a contributing factor to early mortality. The bottom line? If you want to live a healthier life overall and enjoy enhanced fitness, do your best to prioritize and optimize sleep.
How to Sleep Better
Great news! If you’re already exercising, sleep probably comes to you a bit easier than it does for the average person. Besides staying active, here are some proven tips for getting the quality sleep you need.
Pay attention to light exposure. Enjoying bright light during the day – particularly when that light is natural sunlight – and dimming the lights at night can enhance your natural circadian rhythm and help you sleep better. In the evening, be sure to limit your exposure to electronic screens that emit blue light, as this tricks the body into believing it’s daytime.
Watch your caffeine intake. While it’s fine to enjoy limited quantities, too much caffeine can keep you awake for as long as 6 to 8 hours after consumption. If you enjoy warm drinks in the afternoon, consider herbal teas instead.
Get a good mattress. The quality of your sleep surface matters – you just don’t rest well when you’re not comfortably cradled and able to fully relax.
Memory foam offers exceptional comfort, and it goes into some of the best mattresses for athletes. The newest options are surprisingly affordable, and manufacturers are going to great lengths to incorporate special cooling and comfort technology that helps optimize sleep. It’s worth noting that many of these mattresses come with extended trial periods, so it’s easy to set up a return if needed.
Try to stick to a schedule. While it isn’t always possible to go to sleep and wake up at the same time daily, it’s a good idea to aim for consistency. Long-term sleep quality improves with regular sleeping patterns.
Schedule fluid intake. Hydration is important, but it’s a good idea to minimize disruptions by stopping fluid intake an hour or two before bedtime.