Does better sleep give athletes an edge?

Experts say sleep is the next frontier for athletes looking to enhance their performance.

Athletes are dedicated. Dedicated to training and conditioning their muscles. Dedicated to hydrating. Dedicated to feeding their bodies healthy, nutrient-rich foods. Dedicated to showing up for the race or the game ready to give it their all.  

But Michael Howell, MD, with the Fairview Sleep Center in Edina, says there’s one area most people — athletes included — don’t give enough dedication: sleep.

Dr. Howell, a neurologist, or an expert in brain function, specializes in helping people address and overcome sleep disorders or improve their sleep habits. He explains that while most people don’t have a diagnosable sleep problem that requires treatment or medication, the vast majority of people have poor sleep habits that can benefit from optimization.

“How many of us struggle to fall asleep at night, feel exhausted when the alarm goes off, or rely on caffeine to be ready for the day?” he asks. “In sports, how many athletes are showing up to games without enough sleep, affecting reaction time, alertness, and split-second decision making?”

“In the same way we consult a dietitian or personal trainer for guidance on optimizing those aspects of athletics, seeking guidance or training on sleep can help athletes get an edge with their performance.”  

Elite brain performance

Dr. Howell sees athletic performance as brain performance. 

“When you look at a great athlete — ice skaters, golfers, pitchers, runners — not only are they physically fit, but their brains must perform at an elite level as well,” he explains. “The parts of their brain that process vision, movement, reaction, and judgement must be working in synch at top speeds.” 

How do you achieve optimal brain performance? Sleep.

“Our brains are made of 100 billion neurons with trillions of connections that make each of us unique. When we sleep, the brain has time to clear out toxins and regenerate energy. In addition, the brain processes the patterns it learned that day, encoding the information and activity we want to recall for the future.”

Studies show the act of simply visualizing what you want to remember from the day as you’re falling asleep pays off.

“If an athlete spent time working on a particular drill that day, if they spend three to five minutes intently thinking about it before they go to sleep, that is proven to help the brain better process that information while sleeping,” Dr. Howell says. “So whatever movement or skill you want to recall from the day, think about it as you’re going to sleep to help your brain focus on wiring that muscle memory.” 

A new frontier in sports improvement

Dr. Howell has seen conversations about athletic performance shift over the course of his career in medicine. 

“A few decades ago, many people believed that the greatest athletes possessed natural talent. But then we started optimizing: Stop smoking. Lift weights. Adjust your diet. Eat more lean protein. Today, we see more elite athletes acknowledging the importance of sleep to get the edge on their competition.” 

Athletes may be surprised to learn the wide range of benefits that come from dedicating more time to better sleep. Sleep lets the body secrete natural growth hormones to build muscle. Sleep allows the inflammatory system to repair injured tissue. Sleep improves subconscious mood, which has been shown to increase endurance. Sleep lowers overall body temperature during prolonged exercise. 

Dr. Howell puts it simply: “For anyone who wants the edge, my advice is to sleep.”

Fairview is launching a new program called Sleep Performance Training for athletes. Find out how your student athlete or team can get the edge through sleep.

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