Everybody knows sleep is vital, but it’s especially important for athletes. Dr Michael Grandner, Director of the Sleep and Health Research Institute Programme at the University of Arizona, is an expert in the field and is currently working on a project aiming to develop and test strategies to help athletes get better sleep. Here, he offers practical advice on how to sleep better – and explains why it could be the difference between the best and the rest.

We know that we need to sleep, and that it’s a requirement for our bodies to function, but the real questions are what are all the different things that sleep does, and what are the real-world consequences of not getting enough sleep?

Sleep is so important to athletes, because the outcomes of a lack of it are exaggerated in athletes. If a typical person slowed down by even two per cent, they wouldn’t even notice. But for an athlete, it can mean the difference between winning and losing.

When you’re asleep, your body does things it can’t do so well during the day – things like growth for example. The largest peak of growth hormone secretion is during a specific stage of sleep towards the beginning of the night. If you’re not getting that sleep, you’re not getting that growth hormone release, which is very important for athletes.

Sleep is also when your muscles are rebuilding and when your body is reorganising and utilising nutrients – so if you’re training hard but not sleeping, then you’re not training; you’re injuring yourself. That’s why athletes should do what they can to make sure they’re getting the right amount of high quality sleep.

Make your bed and sleep in it
Your bed should equal sleep. Do not spend time in bed that’s not sleeping: sex is fine, but don’t spend time reading, watching TV, working, thinking or worrying. If you’re in bed and can’t fall asleep then get up; the worst thing you can do is spend time struggling to get to sleep, because over time the ability of the bed to trigger sleep response will become diluted. Don’t do anything too mentally stimulating so that hours go by, and don’t turn on any bright lights, but if you can watch an episode of a show and go back to bed – or read a few pages of a book – then do that. 

Getting up on the right side of the bed
When you wake up in the morning, get as much bright light as you can. A lot of athletes get up really early – earlier than their bodies want to – so one way to feel more energetic and enhance your performance is to get as much light in the morning as possible. If that means opening your blinds and standing in front of an open window for a few minutes, do that. If it means getting outside within a few minutes of waking up and getting moving, do that.

Make sure you wind down
If you’re getting into bed and it’s the first time you mind has the chance to wind down, that will cause problems. Turn off the TV an hour before you’re getting ready for bed to give yourself that time to relax. A lot of people confuse distraction with relaxation. Relaxation is more of an active process, and a lot of athletes know this because it’s like stretching. Stretching is an active process; it’s how you prepare yourself. Giving yourself some time to wind down and relax before sleep is just as important as stretching before training.

Don’t worry about one bad night’s sleep
A lot of athletes have sleep problems the night before a competition, but actually one bad night of sleep probably won’t be a huge problem. The most important thing isn’t how you slept last night; the most important thing for your performance, according to the data, is how you’ve slept for the past several days. If you’ve been able to bank some good sleep for about a week, but then get insomnia the night before an event, you should be fine. Even if you feel that you’re not quite on top of things, your performance is probably not going to be degraded very much.