We have all probably experienced the effects of a bad night’s sleep, and have felt tired, exhausted, and irritable the next day. This happens because our body does not have enough energy, and is therefore unable to function effectively during the day. Sleep is a basic human necessity, and it strongly influences our performance. Forgoing sleep, in order to do other things, leads to a vicious circle whereby we try to do more with the extra time we do not spend sleeping, but actually end up performing less effectively.
Sleep is crucial for optimal performance, and especially for professional athletes. People who practise sport at a competitive level are often required to exert so much effort, that it sometimes negatively affects the quality and duration of their sleep. Swimmers, for instance, often train early in the morning, which means that they sleep less and badly, so they feel tired even before their training begins.
Over time, a lack of sleep, or sleeping badly, can lead to various problems, such as increased response time to stimuli, sudden mood swings, excessive tiredness, depression, confusion, and premature ageing. It is not just about how many hours we sleep, but also the quality of our sleep. Poor sleep can also make us more vulnerable to injury and to contracting diseases and infections, because it suppresses our immune system.
There are many ways to improve our sleep, such as eliminating or drastically reducing our consumption of caffeine and alcohol, avoiding screen time before bed, and seeking treatment for disorders like sleep apnoea, which reduces the amount of oxygen in our body and prevents deep sleep. It also helps to avoid sleeping in an unfamiliar environment.
So, we should focus on three main aspects of our sleep habits: how much we sleep, how well we sleep, and our sleep routine. We must sleep at least 7 hours per night, and professional athletes should increase this amount by about 30 minutes per week until they are getting 8-10 hours of sleep every day. We should also try to sleep at night, rather than resorting to afternoon naps. In order to improve the quality of our sleep, it is important to avoid screens, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and refined fats before going to bed. We also need to make sure our bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark, and to exercise every day. Finally, it is important to wake up and fall asleep at the same time every day, to only take naps between one and four in the afternoon if we really feel we have to, and to get some sun in the mornings, especially in winter.