Professional athletes, especially at an elite level, require more than just pure skill and talent. In most cases, being at the highest level of the sport demands a lifestyle that is dedicated to reaching the maximum athletic performance.
Elite athletes not only train for their sport, but they also have to factor in their nutrition, plus emotional, mental, and physical conditioning, as well as lifestyle management.
A significant chunk of an elite athlete's lifestyle management is the amount of sleep they get, and the quality of sleep that they achieve.
In this article, we take a look at the importance of sleep for professional athletes and how getting enough sleep affects their physical and mental health.
How many hours of sleep does an athlete need?
Getting the most amount of athletic performance day after day can be very physically demanding, even for an elite-level athlete, and their bodies need all the help they can get to keep up with the physical activity.
Given the stress that their bodies take from training, athletes need longer hours of sleep than the general population. This helps in repairing muscle tissue and recovering energy and stamina before another day of training or competing.
Sports scientists advise athletes to get at least 10 hours of sleep on nights after rigorous training or competing - this is to aid in faster body recovery.
Between training, games or competing, and keeping up with the day-to-day tasks and social commitments, it can sometimes be difficult for athletes to sleep as long as they need to.
Why do elite athletes need to sleep longer?
Apart from replenishing energy and repairing damaged muscle tissue, a good night's sleep also allows an athlete to be more mentally alert the next day.
Likewise, the later phases of the circadian rhythm (REM Sleep) allow the athletes to retain muscle memory from their day's training.
If the athlete doesn’t get enough sleep after a full day of training - especially when learning something new, the muscle memory will not register as well and the training would lose effectiveness.
Sleep deprivation in athletes also stops them from bringing the high-performance level expected of them every time they enter the field or court.
What happens if an athlete gets poor sleep?
One of the most obvious effects of sleep deprivation in athletes is a decrease in their reaction time, which is essential for peak performance. While they may still have fast reaction times, it wouldn't be at par to the elite sports levels that they're used to.
What other physical effects do athletes experience when they don't get enough sleep?
On the scientific level, exercise and strenuous physical activities deplete fluids, breaks down muscles, and builds up lactic acid in the bloodstream.
The wear and tear on the body can only be repaired through proper rest and hydration.
If an athlete fails to get adequate rest, the body isn’t able to replenish the energy and rebuild the muscles used in training efficiently.
Sleep deprivation is also known to increase the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that can affect an athlete's general wellbeing. The less sleep an athlete gets, the more sensitive they are to stress and fatigue.
How do sleep disorders affect an athlete's mental health?
Mental health struggles can affect everybody, from your average person to your professional athlete. With athletes it’s even more important to keep on top of their mental health, particularly if sleep deprivation is an issue.
There is a lot of mental strain at the elite level of sports due to being in the spotlight and constantly needing to be at your peak, so being thrown off even just a bit can affect a professional athlete's performance.
Not being "in the game" due to the lack of sleep can also cause immense stress to an athlete, which can further throw off their performance on any given day.
It doesn’t matter as much if the average person has an off day, but it can be a make or break situation for athletes on the elite level.
If an athlete’s performance drops, this can also gravely affect their mental and emotional wellness.
Professional athletes suffering from anxiety and depression are more common than you think, but with the right support from their team, coaches and other health professionals, they should still be fine to perform and compete.
How can athletes get better sleep quality?
Professional athletes usually follow a strict training schedule that includes when they exercise, train, eat and rest.
If a sleeping schedule isn't set for the athlete, then they should ensure they fit it into their tight schedule.
Creating a good sleep pattern and getting enough quality sleep would significantly help in an athlete's performance and post-training recovery.
Some sports medicine specialists may also prescribe natural sleep remedies to athletes if they are struggling with their sleep health.
Overall, professional athletes are known for their discipline in their craft and incorporating the same level of discipline into their sleep schedules can go a long way in being their absolute best.
Prioritise mental health
Mental health problems related to sleep can be a vicious cycle because each one affects the other. You can experience mental health issues due to sleep deprivation and at the same time, have sleep problems because of mental health concerns.
The best way to manage the cycle is to address both matters head-on.
Other than the obvious solution of seeking clinical support from sleep health professionals, athletes may also have regular psychiatric evaluations from sports psychologists.
Sports psychologists not only help evaluate an athlete's mental wellness, but they also serve in ensuring that their emotions are in check.
For athletes that compete at the highest level of any sport, they know that their mental and emotional strength must be at optimal levels to exert the highest amount of physical performance required for their competition level.
Being at such an elite level of sport, a professional athlete needs to be physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy to perform at the best of their ability.
Sleep deprivation and enduring mental health concerns can reduce an athlete's prime performance, which is why it’s incredibly important to stay on top of it.
As with the average person, getting the proper hours of sleep and taking care of one's emotional and mental wellbeing would contribute to elevating your athletic performance - this applies for those who play recreational sports as well as elite athletes.