Sleep: the best medicine

2. May 2018

Amateur athletes rarely have it as good as the professionals: they need to skilfully organise their time in order to practice their sporting hobby as desired alongside all their other career and day-to-day activities. In the case of endurance sports, even amateur athletes will find that the scope of their training can quickly reach ten hours per week, and these hours of training are frequently scheduled for the early morning or late evening. It’s quite clear what ends up getting a raw deal here: sleep.

But take note: you should never underestimate the importance of sleep during the regeneration process. This is because during the different stages of sleep, important processes take place that motivate the body to perform again. Sufficient sleep is therefore extremely important, especially during periods of intensive training. The professionals show us how: an afternoon nap is part of everyday life for them.

Its importance has long been known

Vernacular wisdom was already able to recognize the importance of restful sleep. “For while they sleep, He provides”, which means that important characteristics and skills come to some people in sleep, whereas others need to work hard for them. It is by no means a coincidence that sleep plays an important role in recovery. Just like food and drink, sleep is also one of the fundamental needs of humans. Good sleep is of great importance for our health – and this also – or especially –  applies to athletes.

Sleep has many regenerative functions, it enables the body and mind to go through specific recovery procedures and provides the time span in which the important information received throughout the day is processed. During sleep, there is an increase in the secretion of growth promoting hormones, most of the development processes take place in these hours, nutrients and vital substances are absorbed, and the energy reserves refilled. A minimum amount of sleep is necessary to keep the body functioning both physically and mentally. It is therefore hardly surprising that sleep deprivation is used as a method of torture.

How much sleep is necessary?

Chronobiology examines the different performance capability of humans depending on the time of day. There are the “larks” among us, who can pull out trees at different times of the day to the “owls”, who are either referred to as “night owls” or “morning grouches”. Whereas some whistle happily in the shower after their morning jog, others need to drag themselves across the seemingly endless stretch between the bed and bathroom. 

The problem here is: the individual, very different sleeping and waking behaviours are subjected to rigid social frameworks (e.g. work hours, shift work, school hours, etc.), which are not always compatible with the internal clock. Since the era of industrialisation and the possibility to subjectively extend the day by artificial light, the length of time that people sleep has decreased by an average of two hours.

From a health point of view, a minimum of six hours of sleep per night is assumed to be the necessary minimum today. Most people, however, require 7-8 hours of sleep each night - but sleep less. Whether the need for sleep decreases again in old age is unclear. What is certain, however, is that older people like to get up earlier (“senile bed escape”) and take a short nap more and more frequently during the day.

Yet, seniors are not the only ones who would benefit from a 15 to 30-minute nap in the early afternoon, i.e., the phase in which the mental and physical performance capabilities naturally subside. Such a “power nap” can help you to regenerate better and increase your performance capability in the afternoon. In other cultures, this “siesta” is a common part of the normal daily routine, however, even this tradition is dwindling away under the impact of globalisation.


Athletes have fewer sleep disorders

Depending on the duration and intensity, sporting activities raise the level of alertness for several hours beyond the end of the exertion. An intensive training unit late at night therefore often leads to difficulties in falling and staying asleep. 

By contrast, however, sporting activities are generally related to an improvement in the sleep function. Although athletes do not sleep longer, they perceive their sleep to be more relaxing. You don’t need to do competitive sports if you are looking for effective forms of training to improve your brain function and quality of sleep. All physical activities, such as walking, jogging, fitness training, swimming, cycling or many ball sports are sufficient, provided they last for at least 15-30 minutes at a time and are done at least 2 to 3 times a week.

The best tips for healthy sleep:

Sleep rhythm

People who get up every day at the same time are less likely to suffer from sleep disorders. It therefore makes more sense to get accustomed to a sleep rhythm rather than sleep too little during the week and then catch up on this lost sleep at the weekend.

Exercise promotes sleep

Moderate sports promotes sleep. Shortly before going to bed, you should refrain from doing any overly intensive units (interval training, tempo runs), but plan these training units for the morning instead.

End your day

In the evening, the mind often processes the different information it received during the day. Try to end your day with a ritual. This can be a tea before you go to sleep or another activity. Or you can relax by reading, listening to music or use targeted relaxation techniques. There are also special CDs you can listen to before going to sleep.

Choose your drinks

Caffeinated beverages (or, for example, green tea) can affect the sleep of sensitive people and should therefore no longer be drunk from early afternoon onwards.

Eat properly 

The last meal should ideally be taken no later than three hours before going to sleep. Otherwise your stomach and intestines are much too busy with digestion, which in turn will affect your sleep. 

Keep a cool head

A suitable temperature in the bedroom is a cool 16 to 18 degrees Celsius. However, sufficient oxygen is more important than cool air. Therefore, air your bedroom well in the evening before going to bed and then you will sleep better. 

Purist bedroom

Prioritise the bedroom’s main function, which means: the bedroom should not be a dining, writing, computer, or TV room – simply a bedroom. A bed, a wardrobe, and a bedside table, you don't need more!