Rest Up

The most overlooked factor in recovery, sleep deserves a vaunted spot alongside training and nutrition protocols.

Cory McCartney January 04, 2016

You’re beaten down from a nasty WOD, the kids are finally asleep and you’ve got half a season of Game of Thrones sitting on the DVR. Sleep? That’s the last thing on your mind — and therein lies the problem.

CrossFitters stretch, foam-roll, do yoga and a number of other activities to enhance recovery. They’ll pay meticulous attention to their diets and strength cycles, all for the goal of gaining an edge in everyday and competitive performance. Yet it’s not activity but the lack thereof that’s likely missing from most athletes’ routines. “Athletes should absolutely be taking sleep seriously, just as seriously as any other component of health or performance,” says Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., D.ABSM, of NeuroTrials Research in Atlanta.

The baseline understanding is simple: Get a good night’s rest and you wake up rejuvenated in body and mind, and you’re better able to stay focused throughout the day. But there’s more to sleep than just rest. During the deeper stages, growth hormone is released, blood supply to muscles increases, and tissue growth and repair occur. Basically, sleep gives the body a bigger opportunity to bounce back than many of the recovery methods most CrossFitters subscribe to.

“This is where people don’t really understand the full importance of sleep and recovery,” Rosenberg says. “When you do sleep, it’s a time for physical and mental recovery.”

The mental aspect comes into play during REM cycles, which make up 25 percent of a night’s sleep and promote daytime performance. Studies have shown that getting good sleep can lead to tennis players improving their serve, and one study conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of California, San Diego, in 1997 pored over 30 years of NFL game data and found that players who traveled across multiple time zones and experienced disruptions in sleep were 67 percent more likely to lose their games.

How much quality sleep you get also could mean the difference between hitting a one-rep max on a clean-and-jerk and making it through a difficult 21-15-9 WOD. “It’s absolutely essential for performance that all athletes take advantage of the fact that we know sleep has a significant role, as significant a role as certainly diet and some of these supplements do, on performance,” Rosenberg says.

Regardless of whether they are exercising and how strenuous those activities are, adults need at least seven to nine hours of rest per night. But Cheri Mah, a research fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, Human Performance Center, has done studies on sleep extension that have shown that there are benefits to building on that baseline of time in bed to reduce what’s called sleep debt.

Mah — who has worked with multiple collegiate and professional sports teams, including current NBA champions the Golden State Warriors — has done research that shows that when athletes acquire extra rest over multiple weeks, they create a cushion so that a few nights of inadequate rest won’t have catastrophic fallout. In other words, going to bed early for a couple of days before a big comp won’t necessarily cut it. “The big-picture take-home is that really adequate rested recovery, both sleep duration and sleep quality, needs to be prioritized every night,” Mah says. “Not just the night before your competition or even two nights before.”

It’s a key finding because pre-event jitters can interfere with or even prevent sleep, and long-term sleep loss can have consequences. A 2015 review of existing research on sleep and performance that was published in Sports Medicine found that loss of sleep could hinder muscular recovery and cognitive performance, which can have devastating results on play the next day. Put bluntly: Your split jerk, both in weight and skill, could go to waste if sleep isn’t given the proper respect.

Ultimately, understanding the worth of rest and developing the right mindset and optimizing the sleep environment are the goal for any athlete. The basic components of sleep hygiene are for the bedroom to be comfortable and free of light and noise. “I tell athletes to make it like a cave,” Mah says. But just as important as creating the proper sanctuary are those moments before your head even hits the pillow. Mah helps athletes create a sleep-management plan to integrate into their training regimens. Just as athletes naturally dissect every aspect of their approaches to strength and conditioning and nutrition, they come to see sleep as another component of their overall approach to sports. “So many athletes who are performing at a high level often have never considered the importance of sleep and really don’t have strategies in place to assess and then to improve on their sleep and recovery,” Mah says.

Athletes should absolutely be taking sleep seriously, just as seriously as any other component of health or performance

The first step is to develop a routine. Once athletes have assessed their own sleeping tendencies — how erratic are bed and wake times? How much sleep are they getting? Do patterns change from weekdays to weekends? — the next step is to create a transition period between the end of the day and sleep time. Mah recommends starting with 10 minutes dedicated to winding down, building to 30 minutes of reading — “A real book,” she says. “Not an iPad.” — or doing yoga, stretching or breathing exercises that can become a behavioral modification to prepping body and mind for sleep.

For those athletes whose minds tend to race before bed, Mah builds in activities, like concentrating on their breaths, to help them relax before beginning that sleep-time routine. “Some of those behavioral modifications can be really helpful,” she says. As is understanding which substances and activities can negatively impact sleep. Alcohol and caffeine are detrimental to quality rest, as are late nights on the television or tablets. So Jon Snow and that binge-watching session? They’re going to have to wait. “A lot of people watch TV the hour before bed, but they don’t realize that bright light exposure can affect your sleep,” Mah says. “So making that adjustment to not watching TV or using your laptop or exposing yourself to the bright light of your tablet — those things can also be helpful.”


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Cory McCartney