How much sleep do we need? How can we ensure that we’re getting enough sleep and how can we sleep better? Sports scientist Benjamin Garcia shares his insight on getting that premium shut-eye.
We spend on average a third of our lives doing it, most people don’t perform very well if they haven’t had enough of it, yet it’s often quoted that life’s high achievers survive on very little of it. It is, of course, sleep and the rumour is that the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill slept only four or five hours a night.
But how much sleep do we really need, is it possible to perform at a high level with just a few hours’ sleep per night and what can we do to ensure the right quality of sleep?
Physiological effects of sleep
A huge range of the animal kingdom, including humans, operate within a daily 24-hour rest-activity cycle. Periods of rest are important for a whole host of reasons, but from a purely restorative point of view sleep provides an opportunity for the brain and body to repair and rejuvenate.
As a predatory animal, humans have been afforded the luxury of unbroken sleep for extended periods at night. As a general rule it’s colder at night so humans have evolved to sleep at this time, as a higher energy expenditure would be required to stay warm if awake. Coupled with this, core body temperature is lowest at night and so heat loss is minimized by sleeping through the night.
As a guideline, waking up tired and wishing for an opportunity to sleep during the day are warning signs that you’re probably not getting enough quality sleep.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults should sleep at least 7 hours each night to promote optimal health and well-being. As is often the case, a one size fits all approach simply doesn’t work and so it’s important to learn what works best for you. The majority of adults require approximately 8 hours of good-quality sleep per night to operate effectively. As a guideline, waking up tired and wishing for an opportunity to sleep during the day are warning signs that you’re probably not getting enough quality sleep.
While there is still a lot we don’t understand, what we do know is that getting a good night’s sleep has a wide range of benefits, including
- supporting mental wellbeing
- protecting the immune system
- reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes
- helping with weight management and even
- improving sex drive and the probability of conceiving.
Conversely a long-term lack of sleep (months or years) may lead to depression and anxiety, depression of the immune system and developing chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
Eat. Sleep. Train. Repeat.
Getting good quality sleep not only has huge benefits when it comes to health and well-being, but also plays a very significant role in recovering after exercise and therefore can have a big impact on sporting performance. To understand this area in more detail scientists have used a number of different techniques to discover how the body responds to sleep, or lack thereof.
Various different sports and elements of performance have been researched. For example, Fullagar and colleagues (2015) looked at many studies that examined the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance. Many studies found that sleep loss has negative effects on sport performance while some studies found no effect. It seems that one bad night sleep doesn’t necessarily cause a significant decrement in performance but getting less than the optimal amount of sleep in the long-term most likely affects sport performance and recovery.
One bad night sleep doesn’t necessarily cause a significant decrement in performance but getting less than the optimal amount of sleep in the long-term most likely affects sport performance and recovery.
In additional research, athletes who increased the length of their sleep improved sprint running time, improved mood, increased vigour and decreased fatigue (Mah et al, 2011). In other words, athletes who were able to increase hours of sleep demonstrated significant improvements in performance.
The use of wearable technology has made monitoring the quality and quantity of sleep very accessible and can help give you vital clues to how well you’re recovering and how ready you are for the next training session or competition. As experts in monitoring heart rate and tracking activity, there are a number of Polar products that measure sleep, for example Polar A370 and Polar M430.
Enjoy good sleep
It’s estimated that approximately a third of the adult population in both the UK and US don’t achieve an adequate amount of sleep, so what can be done to improve the quality and quantity of sleep?
Incorporate the below tips and techniques to ensure you get a great night sleep and wake up feeling revitalised to take on the day!
Tips: How to sleep better
The overall aim is to establish (and stick to) an evening routine that gives your body the best possible chance of enjoying a good night’s sleep – and this starts before going to bed.
In the hours before going to bed avoid caffeine (individuals are used to and can tolerate different levels of caffeine), alcohol and eating large amounts of food. In addition, try not to consume much fluid before going to sleep to limit the chance of being woken up in the night to go to the bathroom.
Create a bedroom environment that also encourages good sleep, which should be a cool, dark, quiet room. If traveling, ear plugs and eye masks can help to replicate these home conditions while on the road.
Avoid using phones, tablets, and computers and watching television in bed. In fact any gadget that emits white or blue light is a no-no because it interferes with the brain releasing a hormone called melatonin which provides the signal that it’s time to sleep.
Whether it’s performing well at work, at a weekend race, or simply feeling ready and energized to take on the day, prioritize getting a good night’s sleep. The benefits to your health and well-being are vast and recovering from training and preparing for competition will also be significantly boosted by the right quality and quantity of sleep.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.