Sleep, Recovery and Human Performance

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A Comprehensive Strategy for Long-Term Athlete Development Charles H. Samuels, MD, CCFP, DABSM & Brent N. Alexander, M.Sc Post-exercise recovery and regeneration (PERR) is as important as the training regimen to the complex adaptive process of increasing athletic performance.1 The foundation of PERR is sleep. Sleep constitutes the passive recovery, regeneration and rest process.

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Sleep, Recovery, and Regeneration

The role of sleep and the importance of sleep in Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is the focus of this section.

Sleep factors have also been shown to have a direct effect on metabolic processes including energy balance, appetite and weight control. More importantly, sleep extension and circadian rhythm research in athlete populations has provided objective evidence that confirms the significance of these relationships and importance of considering sleep in LTAD.

The relationship of sleep to PERR and performance can be viewed in a structured fashion. Sleep length (total sleep requirement: hours/night), sleep quality (sleep disorders, environmental disturbance or fragmentation), and sleep phase (circadian timing of sleep) are the key factors affecting the overall recuperative outcome of the sleep state. These three parameters of sleep affect an athlete’s ability to train, maximize the training response, and recover.

Most importantly, these parameters change over the course of an athlete’s career and life. Therefore, the athlete, parents and coaches have to have strategies to adjust to the changing sleep requirements throughout the athlete’s career.

Finally, attending to the importance of sleep will reduce the risk of overtraining/under-recovery, enhance resistance to illness and improve recovery from injury. There is great interest and debate over the optimum amount of sleep (sleep length) required for humans to recuperate and function normally.

Sleep requirements change over the course of an individual’s life (figures 1 and 2). Figures 1 and 2 describe the general patterns of changes in sleep requirements and composition (sleep stages) over the course of a lifetime and provide sleep researchers/educators with the information to guide the advice provided for the athletes. It is a safe assumption that based on training demands the sleep requirement for an athlete would be greater than for the average individual who is not an athlete.

Therefore, establishing guidelines for athletes at various stages in their career development for sleep requirement, providing tools to assess sleep patterns/routines accurately and implementing strategies to achieve the recommended amount of sleep are important practical interventions.

It is very important for athletes, parents and coaches to be aware of the fact that at the time in life (12–18 years old) when adolescents require the most amount of sleep (9–10 hours per night) they tend to develop a delay in their biological clock (circadian sleep phase) that reduces the amount of time available for sleep. This results in a chronic sleep restriction during a time of increasing training demands, growth and development.

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