Your sleep plan doesn't have rollover minutes

By Sparta Science

March 10, 2010

When we first start training a professional, college or high school athlete, they are always sending me texts or emails about how to improve their energy and focus, wanting some cutting edge recommendation that is both easy and effective to implement. I usually get these messages in the morning because I’m already asleep by the time their message is sent, generally after midnight. Technology allows me to identify this time stamp and immediately know they are missing the most overlooked part of recovery, sleep.

Probably the biggest reason sleep is not highly publicized, and often dismissed as an extension of parents’ nagging, is that this recommendation is not easy and no company or trainer makes any money from this cheap, yet highly effective intervention. Previously (see Sparta Point 2/18/09), we discussed how sleep increases human growth hormone (HGH), which leads to decreased body fat, increased muscle mass, increased bone density, increased energy levels and immune system function.

However, the main point of this article is to discuss sleep debt, which is the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep, whether it is partial (less than 8 hours a night) or total (the net amount of sleep over weeks). Many of us believe that sleep works like a phone plan’s rollover minutes. Because the benefits of sleep occur from one night’s good rest CONSISTENTLY, you cannot get 6 hours one night and 10 hours the next to equal an average of 8 hours, as you have already created a sleep debt that might take weeks to repay.

Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, says most athletes’ sleep patterns are far below the 9.5 to 10 hours recommended by sleep experts for adolescents and young adults. The lab had six Stanford basketball players, follow normal sleep patterns for 2 weeks before sleeping as much as possible for six weeks, with a goal of 10 hours a night. Sprint times, average free throws made, and three-point percentage all increased dramatically. The athletes were also given standard subjective written tests that showed large improvements in mood and fatigue.

The most effective approach is to set a recurring sleep cycle, going to bed and waking at that same time every day, to ensure at least 8 hours a night first, ideally reaching 9-10 hours when you become more adept at time management. This intervention will allow your body to repay that sleep debt, as well as optimize the body’s hormone response to this restoration (i.e. your body will know when to secrete that vital HGH).

But if you’re competing against our athletes, please continue to look for that next magic supplement to help your energy and overlook time management, because your focus, mood, and speed have little relevance to your performance.

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