Rest and Recovery: Why Athletes Need Sleep and Exercise

Anyone who trains for high-level sports performance knows that sleep and exercise go hand in hand, but now science has further evidence to support the argument. Recent evidence links the necessity of sleep to to an athlete’s performance and shows that the lack of sleep can lead to slower glucose metabolism, decreased by 30% to 40%. Additionally, sleep deprivation has been linked to increased levels of perceived exertion and an actual decrease in levels of aerobic endurance.

In a recent study conducted at the University of Chicago Medical School by Eve Van Cauter, Ph.D., researchers found that during a period of deprived sleep, participants in the study metabolized glucose less effectively, as well as emitted strong levels of the stress hormone cortisol into their bodies which has been shown to impair memory, produce insulin resistance and slow recovery in athletes.

Glucose Metabolism and Recovery Time

Glucose and stored glucose, or glycogen, are the two primary sources for energy in athletes. It is very important for endurance athletes to be able to store glucose in both the muscles and liver for continued athletic performance. Without a full night’s sleep, the body cannot store glycogen, making the fuel necessary for endurance beyond just 90 minutes unavailable.

Though the research is not complete, the recent University of Chicago study has shown that a continued lack of sleep can indeed affect metabolic functions in the body. It is important for proper sleep to take place both before competitions and during a heavy training schedule to help your body recover quicker and maintain the endurance that it needs to compete.

Slow Wave Sleep and Its Affects on Healing the Body

Sleep is still one subject that science has not completely mastered. However, scientists do know that sleep is divided into five distinct stages. It is during the 3rd and 4th stages that the most impact for athletes is recognized. These stages, called slow wave sleep, are the part of the night where the pituitary gland releases growth hormones that stimulate fat burning, muscle repair and growth, and bone building. Studies have shown that when sleep loss is extended, athletic performance is diminished in a number of ways.

Athletes need a mix of both exercise and recovery to recognize the best results from their training. High level performance athletes who train heavily with a high intensity must understand that the more they train, the more planned recovery time their bodies need. It is often helpful for such individuals to keep a training log to monitor workouts and rest time to determine how their body feels both after and between workouts and modify training plans accordingly.

Beyond just the scientific study of sleep and exercise, most athletes recognize a difference in their own personal performance based on the amount of sleep they have had, not just in one night, but over a period of time. It is recommended that all adults get an average of 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep for the best performance and mental clarity.


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