Getting the Most Out of Sleep

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The importance of sleep cannot be understated in terms of recovery. Sleep plays a critical role in not only recovery and on-field performance, but in all aspects of daily living. With new technology and recovery tools continuing to surface in recent years, it is important for coaches to help athletes see the big picture and understand how imperative sleep is toward their recovery and performance.

Understanding the stages of sleep is necessary when discussing the quality of sleep, one is getting. The stages of a sleep cycle can be broken down into Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM)[1]. When one first begins to fall asleep, NREM sleep kicks in. NREM has 4 Stages; with stages 1 and 2 considered “light sleep” and stages 3 and 4 considered “deep sleep.” Stages 3 and 4 are considered the most crucial stages of sleep, as this is the time where the body is in full-recovery mode, particularly during stage 4, where several growth factors are released for cellular repair1. REM sleep, or the “dream stage”, occurs after the deep sleep stage1. During REM, the brain is active with low amplitude, high frequency waves, and there is a disconnect between brain and body1. This allows the body to remain in a state of total relaxation, thus allowing for maximal recovery. Upon the completion of REM sleep, the body starts another cycle again. Each cycle typically lasts around 90 minutes, and one may go through 4 or 5 stages of sleep in a typical night1

According to Wright et al., subjects who received regular nightly sleep between 7-8 hours and up to 10 hours showed improved alertness and overall vigilant performance[2]. Comparatively, subjects who slept less than 7 hours showed diminished cognitive function and optimal levels of alertness during activity2. Given the incredible demands of a baseball season, it would be unrealistic to assume players would be able to get 7-8 hours of quality sleep each and every night and not suffer some sort of sleep debt at some point.

Combating Sleep Debt. Sleep debt, or acute lack of sleep, can be combated through sleep extension, or napping[3]. Naps are a great way to regenerate the body to catch up on sleep debt. Naps should be limited to less than 30 minutes or over 90 minutes, and should be scheduled in the mid to late afternoon. Short naps can be combined with a dose of caffeine before falling asleep in order to jump start the body upon waking just as the caffeine begins to take effect. If one is not able to combat sleep debt, this can become a chronic issue (insomnia). As a result of chronic sleep debt, one can suffer the effects of sleep eprivation3. These physiological disturbances can negatively affect not only one’s cognitive function, but tissue healing and overall cellular maintenance and repair the body needs during sleep3[4][5]. Cortisol upregulation can lead to protein degradation and increased inflammation, and decreased production of anabolic hormones testosterone, growth hormone, and Insulin Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) would impair the protein synthesis necessary for restoration4. Lastly, decreased efficiency and availability of local platelet rich plasma growth factors and cytokines available for tissue repair would inhibit the healing process, leading to increased soreness and fatigue4-[6].

Tracking Sleep. While the benefits of sleep have been well documented, it is important to also understand how one can achieve the highest quality of sleep possible. It is paramount for the athlete to determine the amount of sleep needed per week (e.g., 8 hours per day = 56 hours per week)2. This gives the athlete a sense of how much sleep they require and how much sleep debt they accumulate per week. Fatigue science has come to the forefront in recent years in tracking and providing feedback on sleep. The

WHOOP band is a wearable technology device that has recently been approved by MLB for players to wear during games. This piece of technology does a great job in tracking sleep performance through heart rate variability and daily caloric expenditure to

aid in recovery. With this information, the athlete and staff can develop sleep and napping strategies with the ultimate goal of reducing cumulative sleep debt. These devices can also track the number of times one’s sleep is disrupted, as waking up several times during the night can inhibit the effects of the body’s natural sleep rhythm[7]. This tool provides a great way to start the conversation of proper recovery and sleep between strength coach and athlete.

Nutritional Interventions. It could be suggested that quality sleep all starts with diet. In short, adequate amounts of Vitamin B6 and Tryptophan (Trp) are needed for one to feel “sleepy”6. Trp converts to serotonin and melatonin, the brain’s key calming hormones. Complex carbohydrate ingestion increases Trp release to the brain through insulin stimulation of Large Neutral Amino Acids (LNAAs) into skeletal muscle5. Several studies have shown a High Glycemic Index (GI) meal significantly improved sleep-onset latency (time to fall asleep), increased REM sleep & decreased light sleep and wakefulness6. Diets high in fat may negatively influence total sleep time (as well as promote inflammation). In terms of sleep supplementation, there are several NSF certified products available that can improve sleep onset latency and enhance deep sleep. For example, ZMAs (zinc-magnesium) with Theanine by True Athlete is alternative for athletes who wish to enhance deep sleep quality through supplementation. The chart below breaks down important elements in the diet that can aid in sleep quality6:

Nutrient Effects Sources
B Vitamins Required to produce serotonin and melatonin Whole grains, potatoes, pork, liver, kidney beans, chicken, bananas, peanuts, eggs, dairy
Melatonin Natural hormone secreted by pineal gland that regulates sleep-wake cycle. Tart cherries, salmon
Theanine Amino acid that promotes relaxation, reducing anxiety and stress, and increasing dopamine secretion Herbal teas (green, chamomille)
Zinc Antioxidant critical for immune and enzyme function, anabolic hormone production and protein synthesis Oysters, beef, crab
Magnesium & Calcium Promotes muscle relaxation and inhibits nerve excitability Bananas, almonds, avocados, yogurt, beans, fish, dark leafy greens
Valerian Promotes drowsiness and sleep Valerian root extract
BCAAs Promote restfulness, maintenance of blood sugar, protein synthesis and cellular repair Hard cooked egg, nuts, lean meats
Tryptophan Amino acid that converts to serotonin and melatonin Bananas, dairy, whole grain cereals, turkey, jasmine rice

 

Strategies for Falling Asleep. Having a consistent pre-sleep routine is important in maintaining circadian rhythm and establishing quality sleep7. Athlete pre-sleep routine should include a 1-2-hour downtime prior to bedtime that includes low light exposure and relaxing activities. Blue light blockers are available to diminish stimulating blue light from electronic devices which can increase sleep onset latency, or the time it takes for one to fall asleep7. Below are strategies for falling asleep:

  1. Maintain the same nighttime routine.
  2. Avoid mentally stimulating activities 1-2 hours before bed.
  3. Avoid work or leisure time in bed. Train your body to associate your bed with sleep.
  4. Set thermostat between at or around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. Avoid using technology in bed.
  6. Ensure a dark, quiet room.
  7. Don’t go to sleep hungry or dehydrated.
  8. Bring pillow / blanket on the road for bus trips and hotel.
  9. Ensure mattress at home is comfortable & supportive.
  10. Avoid caffeine or stimulant use 4 hours before bed.[8]

Strategies for Waking Up. Waking up after a full night sleep can be just as important as falling asleep itself. When speaking in terms of circadian rhythm, waking up around the same time each day allows the body’s internal clock to stay in sync3. Below are strategies for waking up:

  1. Goal should be to wake up at same time each day.
  2. Wake up out of 90-minute cycles (7.5 hr = 5 cycles, 9 hr = 6 cycles).
  3. Turn on lights, or open curtains, immediately. Morning light inhibits melatonin release from pineal gland, the key signal that helps maintain natural body clock.
  4. Be active and eat a well-balanced breakfast within 30 minutes of waking.
  5. Drink 12 oz. of water within 30 minutes of waking.
  6. Perform a mentally and physically stimulating activity upon waking

Professional baseball players constantly have to readjust their biological clocks due to variables such as travel, jet lag, game times, length of games, personal issues, workouts, etc. The key is to try to stick to a routine as much as possible. The ability to maintain proper circadian rhythm directly affects sleep length and quality, as well as regulates the feeling of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day, which can greatly impact athletic performance7.

 

References

  1. Davenne D. Sleep of athletes – problems and possible solutions. Biological Rhythm Research[serial online]. February 2009; 40(1):45-52. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 11, 2015
  2. Wright, KP. The effects of chronic sleep loss and sleep extension on selective attention and executive function. J Sleep Res. 2006; 15(s1):56–58. doi: September 2006.[i]
  3. Schroder, EA, Esser, KA. Circadian Rhythms, Skeletal Muscle Molecular Clocks, and Exercise. Ex Sport Sci Rev.224–229.
  4. Davenne D. Sleep of athletes – problems and possible solutions. Biological Rhythm Research[serial online]. February 2009; 40(1):45-52. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 11, 2015
  5. Wright, KP. The effects of chronic sleep loss and sleep extension on selective attention and executive function. J Sleep Res. 2006; 15(s1):56–58. doi: September 2006.
  6. Schroder, EA, Esser, KA. Circadian Rhythms, Skeletal Muscle Molecular Clocks, and Exercise. Exe Sport Sci Rev. 224–229.
  7. Winter W, Hammond W, Green N, Zhiyong Z, Bliwise D. Measuring Circadian Advantage in Major League Baseball: A 10-Year Retrospective Study. Int J Sports Phys & Perform [serial online]. September 2009; 4(3):394-401. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 14, 2015.

 

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Mike Lidge, MS, RSCC is a MiLB Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Philadelphia Phillies

 

 

 

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