Think of sleep as training too

The Single Most Effective Recovery Tool

We all enjoy sleep, it's a fundamental requirement of the human body and its benefits far surpass getting rid of bags under your eyes and improving your mood! Many of us, from students to working professionals often feel "tired" and get by on minimal sleep, this comes with its risks. However, for athletes, the importance of sleep only gets greater but is often overlooked. This can be a real frustration as a therapist or coach, in my experience, especially with younger athletes who train/rehab their nuts off but can't part with their smartphones and tablets until the early hours of the morning and wonder why their performance is plateauing. Having said this, it's not always as simple as just turning your phone off and can be an issue at any age and in any sport, this is where sleep education can be very useful. 

What is sleep hygiene? This term refers to actions and behaviors which encourage improved sleep quality and quantity. Athletes in particular are prone to sleep deprivation for a number of reasons such as, early morning training sessions, travelling, waking often to use the toilet as a result of proper hydration, caffeine supplementation and over worrying or thinking (especially in the nights prior to a competition) (1). All systems recover when we’re sleeping (muscle, organ and central nervous system), information and skills learnt during the day are transferred from short to long term memory during sleep. A number of studies have demonstrated substantial reductions (up to 30%) in reaction time, cognitive and motor performance, mood state and endurance performance in sleep deprived athletes (2, 3). An interesting study investigated a number of factors such as number of sports played, hours played per week and amount of sleep to see which was the strongest predictor of injury in adolescent athletes, the strongest predictor was found to be having less than 8 hours of sleep per night. In fact, is was shown that athletes who get less than 8 hours sleep per night had 1.7 times greater risk of injury compared to those who had 8 hours sleep or over. Without harping on about the research too much, the importance of sleep for an athlete cannot be argued.

Human Growth Hormone and Sleep

Even for non-athletes who may simply be after putting on some lean mass, sleep is vital. A real bugbear for me, is seeing people splash out on supplements and personal trainers etc, when their sleep (and nutrition) is poor! Proper sleep hygiene is the single most effective and SIMPLE recovery tool and its FREE! During the first 90 to 120 minutes of sleep, one of the biggest physiological events in an athlete’s body occurs – a huge surge of human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is secreted throughout the day, peaking around workouts but nowhere near to the extent in which it’s released during sleep. This is the vital period in which athletes grow and repair muscle, this is when babies grow inches in the space of a month. Do you take full advantage of this huge window for growth and recovery? If not, do you really take your training and performance seriously? Think of sleep as training too. Timing, quantity and quality of sleep must be considered to maximize this period of recovery:

  • You may have heard the saying “one hour of sleep before midnight counts as two”, old wives’ tale or not, going to bed earlier closer matches the body’s circadian clock (this is the body’s timekeeping mechanism which maintains certain biological processes). A regular sleeping pattern creates a set point for HGH release, going to sleep much later than this or having irregular sleeping times can dampen the initial HGH surge (4). As difficult as it may sound to many athletes, it’s vitally important to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, EVEN ON WEEKENDS! This maintains a regular set point for HGH release and other sleep processes (melatonin release etc), optimizing recovery and adaptation. This is particularly important during times of high workload or competition. Remember, sleep is when you BANK your training!
  • Sleeping longer (within reason) also maximizes HGH release. After the initial surge, it’s released in smaller waves throughout the night, so if you cut your hours of sleep short, you cut the amount of HGH waves secreted. It is also in the later hours of sleep when our all-important central nervous system (CNS) recovers. Director of Human Performance Project, Dr. John Underwood suggests the 10pm to 6am sleep model to fully optimize recovery and adaptation, a period of 8 hours of sleep which closely matches our natural circadian rhythm.
  • A deep period of sleep must be reached (slow wave sleep) for this surge of HGH to occur, so it is important to limit interruptions during the night (phones, TV, etc). This period of sleep is usually reached after 90 – 120 minutes, interruptions will take us out of deep sleep and dampen HGH release along with elevating Cortisol levels. It is also important to note that you need adequate protein available to maximize this period of recovery, Casein (milk protein) is ideal in this situation due to its slow release nature – drip feeding amino acids into our system throughout the night.


There has always been some confusion around whether athletes should be encouraged to take naps and the duration/timing that should be recommended. We’ve all experience nodding off on the sofa, sometimes you wake up feeling refreshed, other times you wake up feeling groggy and worse that you did prior to the nap, this feeling is known as sleep inertia. The effectiveness of the nap is largely dependent on its duration, as a rule of thumb, a 15-20 minute nap can improve fatigue levels, alertness and cognitive performance without causing sleep inertia (5). Any longer than 20 minutes and the nap can result in immediate sleep inertia effects and does not give any added benefit compared to a 10-20 minute nap (5).

Napping can be useful when used at the correct time, such as between morning and afternoon training sessions or competitions, as long as the nap is of the correct duration as sleep inertia will have a profoundly negative effect on performance. A method which I have had great results with personally (possibly because it involved drinking beloved coffee) is the caffeine nap, this involves taking caffeine immediately prior to having a 15-20 minute power nap. With correct timing, the caffeine will kick in as you wake up, combining the initial benefits of the nap with the benefits of caffeine. This is particularly useful when napping prior to a competition. It must also be noted that napping in the evening, closer to regular bedtime can disrupt your sleeping patterns so this should be avoided. Also, napping does not make up for sleep debt but can act as a counter measure. For example, if you miss an hour of sleep during the night, an hour’s nap during the following day will not give the same benefits as a solid night’s sleep but can help to counteract the immune disturbances and stress responses related to sleep debt (6). 

Sleep Hygiene Remedies and Recommendations

As discussed above, sleeping is a hugely important area which athletes should take just as seriously as their training. It comes down to a simple question, are you doing things off of the field that could ruin what you do on the field? Try to incorporate the following recommendations into your daily routine to optimize sleep quality and quantity:

  • As discussed above, aim to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. That’s 8 hours STRAIGHT, limit disruptions.
  • Have a regular sleeping pattern, even on weekends and days off! This ensures a strong circadian rhythm. Try to replicate the 10pm – 6am pattern to the best of your ability and stick to it!
  • Remove the bedroom clock!
  • If needed, especially after morning sessions, take a 10-20 minute power nap in the afternoon. Do not nap during the morning or evening. Athletes should not rely on napping, however, disturbances to normal routines do happen (when travelling etc) and napping is a useful tool to offset the effects of sleep debt.
  • No electronic devices 90 minutes prior to sleep. If you were to only implement one of these recommendations, PLEASE may it be this one. Especially for younger athletes! Teenagers use electronic devices for an average of 7 hours per day, that’s a huge amount of time and plays a big role in sleep debt and reductions in performance (not to mentions its effects on posture and related habits – an area I’ll save for a future article). Blue light is a frequency of light emitted by almost every backlit device (mobile phones, tablets, laptops and TV screens. This type of light significantly decreases the body’s release of melatonin (the hormone which makes you feel sleepy), in fact it has been found to shut down its production for up to 90 minutes, making falling asleep very difficult. Try to create a “digital sunset”, where you turn all technology off at the same time each night. It has to be said, that in this day and age it may be very difficult to completely get away from backlit devices, however, there are blue light blocking apps available which are very useful as well as glasses which filter out blue light.



  • Use your bed for sleeping only, try to avoid working and watching TV on it. As a result your brain will associate your bed with sleep only. When travelling and staying in hotels, use available cafés, bars or foyers to work, socialize or watch TV.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks for 6 hours prior to scheduled sleep. Foods containing tryptophan (such as turkey and pumpkin seeds) can aid melatonin production, include these in your final meal of the day. Finally, try to consume 30-40g of casein immediately prior to sleep to feed your recovery overnight. 
  • Temperature control! Your body’s internal temperature drops when it is preparing to go to sleep, this is why it is so hard to sleep in a hot (or extremely cold) environment. Make sure your bedroom is pitch black and cool (around 18°C), ensure that this temperature can be maintained throughout the night.
  • During competition or when travelling, pick a roommate who you have shared a room with before and who is unlikely to disrupt your sleep (snoring, staying up late to watch TV, etc), invest in an eye mask and ear plugs. Glasses can also be useful when travelling in buses and at airports at night to help block out the bright light and limit disruptions to melatonin release.
  • Use relaxation methods, these can be very useful especially when worrying about competitions. Methods such as goal setting, meditation, self-talk and mental imagery are great for reducing competition related anxiety. Even away from competition, sometimes thoughts of worry and anxiety can occur, again, meditation is great for this. As simple as it sounds, keeping a to-do list is also an effective way of reducing worries or stress, when you’re lying in bed with things popping in and out of your mind, write them down and forget about them until the morning, you no longer have to keep them floating about in your working memory.


1-      Robson-Ansley, P.J., Gleeson, M. and Ansley, L. (2009) ‘Fatigue management in the preparation of Olympic athletes’, Journal of Sports Sciences, 27(13), pp. 1409–1420.

2-      Hudson Walters, P. (2002) ‘Sleep, the athlete, and performance’, Strength and Conditioning Journal, 24(2), p. 17.

3-      Oliver, S.J., Costa, R.J.S., Laing, S.J., Bilzon, J.L.J. and Walsh, N.P. (2009) ‘One night of sleep deprivation decreases treadmill endurance performance’, European Journal of Applied Physiology, 107(2), pp. 155–161.

4-      Gamble, K.L., Berry, R., Frank, S.J. and Young, M.E. (2014) ‘Circadian clock control of endocrine factors’, Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 10(8), pp. 466–475.

5-      Brooks A. (2006) ‘A brief afternoon nap following nocturnal sleep restriction: which nap duration is most recuperative?’, SLEEP, 29(6), pp. 831-840.

6-      Faraut, B., Nakib, S., Drogou, C., Elbaz, M., Sauvet, F., De Bandt, J.-P. and Léger, D. (2015) ‘Napping reverses the salivary Interleukin-6 and urinary Norepinephrine changes induced by sleep restriction’, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(3), pp. E416–E426.

By Harry McQueen @27hmcqueen 

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