Sports Sleep

Quantity and Quality of Sleep Crucial to Sports Performance

By Dave Orloff

While exercise and good nutrition are staples of every athlete's routine, you may be missing an essential component to your training regimen: sleep. Sleep is key to good health and to optimal performance on the field.

To function efficiently and stay at the top of your game, make sure you are getting the sleep you need. Adolescents need about 9.5 hours of sleep and adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. If you are tired during the day or have trouble sleeping, you may be one of 70 million Americans who suffer from a sleep disorder.

Three of the most prevalent sleep disorders related to sports performance include:

  • Sleep apnea, a respiratory system complication where the person's upper airway collapses while they are sleeping, essentially "choking" the person while they sleep. Snoring may or may not be associated with sleep apnea. According to the National Institute of Health, sleep apnea affects more than 12 million Americans, and it is as common as adult diabetes.
  • Insomnia, a symptom, which is characterized by persistent difficulty falling asleep, and/or difficulty staying asleep. Insomnia is typically followed by functional impairment while awake. Insomnia affects athletic performance by lowering glycogen stores for energy, interferes with tissue repair and growth (elevated levels of cortisol), and lowers reaction time, which leads to lower performance and increased risk for injury. Insomnia can last for any duration of time and may be due to anxiety related to the quality of game performance. 
  • Narcolepsy or narcoleptic-like symptoms (developed post concussion). This can be related to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) sustained from a concussion. It is very important that concussions are reported and examined by a doctor to ensure that more severe injuries have not been sustained. Narcolepsy secondary to TBI may manifest itself through excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and should not be mistaken for post concussion syndrome. 

It is important to know the signs of a sleep disorder and get treated. Signs include: nausea; depression; dizziness; insomnia; difficulty concentrating/poor classroom performance; sensitivity to light and/or noise; fatigue; poor "on field performance/lack of energy; difficult/poor decision making; or headaches. If one or more of these symptoms exist in conjunction with difficulty sleeping, it is important to see a doctor specializing in sleep medicine. To treat sleep apnea, surgery or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy can be used. For insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy can help determine the cause your inability to sleep.

Everyone should develop good sleep habits to ensure a good night sleep. First, optimize your sleep environment to ensure that light, temperature, noise and bed comfort are all to your liking. Second, ensure that there is downtime before bed. Complete homework and exercise two hours before bedtime. Third, keep all electronics out of the bedroom. And lastly, do not eat heavy meals or drink caffeinated beverages before bedtime.
The RWJ Comprehensive Sleep Center is committed to helping patients understand and manage their sleep disorders. Our comprehensive approach to care uses the latest technology, equipment and techniques to centralize each stage on the road to recovery - from diagnosis to selecting treatment to follow up and reassessment. Its board-certified physicians treat a variety of sleep disorders in both adults and children, including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy. For more information about sleep disorders, call 1-888-SFL-REST.

Orloff is associate director of the RWJ Sleep Center.

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