Could what you do in bed be the key to athletic success?
The idea that you can “sleep yourself fitter” might seem counterintuitive, but in fact sleep is a vital part of health and fitness - it increasingly forms part of the training regimes of top athletes, who often hire specialist sleep consultants to advise them. And with good reason - sleeping properly can have a pretty direct impact on athletic performance.
Scientific studies looking at the link between sleep and sport have been pretty conclusive - for example, a study of basketball players conducted at Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic found that sleeping longer not only enabled the players to sprint faster, but to shoot the ball more accurately.
Why is sleep so beneficial? In his book “Why We Sleep”, Dr Matthew Walker describes trials he ran where participants had to learn sequences to enter on a keyboard - he found that proper sleep “helped the brain automate the movement routines, making them second nature”. And this effect is just as beneficial for more athletic training - making basketball players faster on the court.
Sleep can also lower injury rates in sports - a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics found that young athletes who slept for less than 8 hours a night were 70% more likely to have had an injury than those who got 8 hours or more. How many hours of sleep they’d had was the single biggest predictor of whether they’d also been injured while playing sport.
And it’s not just about short-term results - research presented by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that the sleepier professional baseball players reported themselves to be, the less likely it was that they’d still be competing at the same level within 3 years.
But what exactly is the right way to sleep to ensure that you’re fit, healthy, or even an athletic superstar, just like Anthony Joshua?
Well, it starts before you call it a day - footballer Ronaldo avoids all electronic devices for an hour and a half before bed on the advice of his sleep coach, and there’s scientific evidence that’s he’s right - the human body is sensitive to changes in light levels, and studies have shown that kind of light emitted by electronics can be particularly disruptive to sleep patterns. NASA actually took this seriously enough that they changed the kind of lighting used on the International Space Station when the research suggested it might be having a negative impact on their astronauts’ sleep, so it could be worth having some device-free time before bed.
It’s also important to make sure your schedule allows for enough sleep - exercising first thing in the morning might seem like a way to get it out of the way and allow you to get on with your busy schedule, but a study on swimmers at the 2008 Olympics suggested that their 6 am training sessions were reducing how much sleep they got, with all the potentially negative effects that go along with that. Studies tend to show that more sleep you get, the greater the performance benefit - athletes including Roger Federer and LeBron James have reported getting as much as 12 hours a day.
What if you’ve had the best of intentions but haven’t managed a solid night of sleep for whatever reason? Well, the good news is that science says a good nap might help - indeed, many top athletes build nap time into their routines. There’s some evidence that napping “can markedly reduce sleepiness and can be beneficial when learning skills, strategy or tactics” and help to negate some of the detrimental effects of waking up early. Napping and sport is such a hot topic that a Dutch university is currently running a 4-year research project specifically looking into the benefits of naps for athletes.
Getting the right amount of sleep matters, but where you’re sleeping is also extremely important - somewhere quiet and dark is obviously ideal, but you should also pay attention to temperature. Studies have shown that if you’re too hot at night you’ll have less sleep, of much lower quality. Using the right bedding is a key part of this - go for cooling, breathable materials that’ll keep you well-ventilated at night.
And hey, if you can’t get over the feeling that all that sleep is a waste of time - try lucid dreaming. Research has shown that people who can practice lucid dreaming - the peculiar state where you become aware that you’re dreaming without waking up - might be able to improve their motor skills while they’re still asleep. In a study measuring performance at darts, those who’d successfully managed to practice their game in a dream showed significant improvement when they were awake. Sadly, there’s no evidence that practicing unaided human flight in a lucid dream makes you any better at it in real life.