As a personal trainer or healthcare professional, it’s very trendy to talk about sleep and how to improve your sleep quality. I’ve read, watched (TED Talks) and listened to more tricks and “hacks” to improve sleep than I can count. But which of the many factors we hear are effective? Scratch that. Which single factor is the most effective?
– Based on available evidence, sleep extension (~10 hours) appears to be the factor of significant value.
– Athletes and those training very hard need more than the average person.
– Ultimately, we don’t have the evidence to suggest we can “hack” sleep. We must simply plan a significant night’s rest as often as possible.
Most of the personal training clients I work with do not sleep enough. I don’t sleep enough. The reason is because people exercising regularly share a personality type of one who’s drivers include self-improvement and progress. Personally, I feel in a constant state of ‘trying to fit things in’ each day. To maximise every hour I’m awake.
For example, I am writing this on Saturday morning at 07:20 having already completed two hours of Japanese language study. I am guilty of sharing the feeling that time is always against us and we must maximise. Why sleep-in and waist our only non-renewable resource, time?
For people like me and (as you’re reading this) like you, the idea of “hacking” or tricking your body out of sleep, to save time, is appealing. But sadly, it doesn’t work.
A very recent, systematic literature review (Bonnar et al. 2018) analysed ten research papers investigating the effects of sleep quality on athletic performance. Subjects were mostly males aged between 18-24.
Researchers found that in athletes who’s sleep duration was increased from ~7 hours to >10 hours each night demonstrated significantly greater sprint performance (power) and ~10% improvement in motor skills (such as free-throw shooting). Levels of self-reported fatigue and mood improved by ~80%. The results suggest that greater sleep duration has significant impact on both physical and mental performance.
Research also supports an earlier chronotype (early to bed, early to rise) as being significantly more beneficial than the same number of total hours slept, starting at midnight.
When comparing different strategies to maximise the effectiveness of your sleep, nothing beats making sure that your head is on the pillow for enough hours per night. Studies looking at the effects of sleep extension have found that the magic duration appears to be around 10 hours of total sleep in an athletic population.
Studies with the second most support are those that improved night-time habits and routines: sleeping in a dark room, reducing light exposure for as long as possible before sleep etc.
One other strategy that was not discussed in this particular review, but that makes perfect sense to me anecdotally, is to keep a consistent circadian rhythm. This means sleeping and waking at roughly the same time each day. Every wonder why you feel horrid on a Monday morning? The Sunday morning lie-in does more harm than good, in my opinion.
– Keep a consistent sleep/wake cycle.
– Spend 9-10 hours asleep if/whenever possible.
– If you struggle to sleep, take this seriously and have a professional help you.
Hungry for more?
Take a look at the blog post (and video) below on one of the most over-looked strategies to improve strength in the long-term.