The power of sleep for student-athletes

Brett Montrose
Jun 27 · 9 min read

When it comes to developing as a student-athlete, there are three pillars of health that must be taken care of: physical activity, nutrition, and sleep.

We hear a lot about sleep — there are heaps of theories surrounding sleep for adults and sleep for athletes. But, like lots of what we can read on the internet, so much of the info out there is unchecked or blatantly false.

Our team at Streamline Athletes was hungry for some genuine information on sleep for high school and collegiate track and field student-athletes, so I connected with the right person to give us the facts. Jonathan Charest (Jo) is a Ph.D. candidate at Université Laval specializing in sleep for athletes. Jo’s resume consists of employment with an NHL hockey team, an NCAA Division I athletics department, junior hockey clubs, and the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary. He’s also a former Sherbrooke Vert et Or sprinter with some impressive accolades in the sport, including World Youth and Pan American championship appearances for Team Canada and PRs of 10.59 in the 100m, 21.19 in the 200m, and 47.90 over 400m.

Jonathan Charest, sleep specialist (Ph.D. candidate)

Jo and I dived into a lot of detail, covering everything from naps to Fortnite. At the centre of our conversation, though, was the theme that sleep must be taken seriously for optimal performance. He put it simply: “Train as hard as you want, but if you eat like crap and neglect sleep, don’t bother training at all.”

How much sleep does a student-athlete need?

While a typical adult might be able to get away with 7–8 hours of sleep every night, Jo made it very clear that a student-athlete is not your average adult. In order for high school or university level track and field athletes to be top notch in the classroom and in training/competition, they should be getting 10–12 hours of sleep every single night.

Without 10+ hours, a student-athlete’s body doesn’t fully recover. Jo explained that during training, muscles sustain microtears that need to be repaired. These microtears are repaired during the night, specifically during the third stage of sleep — deep sleep — which is one an athlete doesn’t spend enough time in with only seven or eight hours of sleep in a night.

To better understand the stages of sleep, I asked Jo for a simple summary of each stage (during a standard night of sleep):

1. Falling asleep

This is when you’re in transition. You’re easy to wake. Falling asleep composes 10–15% of your night.

2. Maintaining sleep

During this light sleep stage, your body is focused on staying asleep but hasn’t yet entered the deep sleep stage. Stage 2 is defined by a couple different types of brainwaves — spindles (higher frequency) and K-complexes (a little lower). Both have the same effect: to help you stay asleep despite any potential noise or other disruptors in the bedroom or beyond. Maintaining a sleeping state makes up 50–60% of your night.

3. Deep sleep

This is the money zone for a student-athlete. It’s during this deep sleep stage that the body begins to synthesize protein, glycogen, and cortisol. Jo explained that the cell division occurring during this phase of an athlete’s sleep is what repairs microtears and allows you to wake up rejuvenated. Without adequate sleep, you won’t spend enough time in deep sleep and are actually “throwing out your training”. Deep sleep composes 15–20% of your time spent sleeping.

4. REM sleep

REM — or rapid eye movement — is the dream state. A maximum of 10% of your night is spent in this stage.

Consistency is key

In addition to needing more than 10 hours of sleep every night, getting those hours on a consistent sleep schedule is vital.

Jo explained that since humans are such “creatures of habit”, we wouldn’t actually need an alarm clock if we’re asleep and awake at the same times every day. When it comes to flexibility, he suggests nightly bedtimes ranging within a half hour.

It’s important to keep in mind that getting in bed at the same time every single day for weeks on end is borderline impossible, so keep this in mind as a benchmark — strive for a consistent bedtime as frequently as possible.

The impact of sleep on injuries

Here’s an eye-opener:

Athletes who sleep fewer than seven hours are 170% more likely to sustain an injury.

According to Jo, there’s no replacement for sleep when it comes to preventing injury. “While there are methods for recovery, there’s no substitute for sleep’s ability to repair muscles and prevent injury. There are no magical pills, no magical ice baths, and no magical order from Amazon. It’s sleep.”

Are naps okay?

As it turns out, we don’t need to feel bad about napping! If approached properly and integrated with your training plan, napping can be a great way to increase wakefulness and to top up your weekly Zs.

On training days, Jo suggests napping for 20 minutes between 1 o’clock and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. If a nap doesn’t exceed the 20-minute mark, it will actually have a greater contribution than caffeine on your wakefulness. Any longer, though, and you risk becoming drowsy.

Of course, finding time to nap, especially when you’re in class, is a challenge for high school student-athletes. Try working in naps after school, during the summer, and on weekends!

On off days, Jo recommends embracing the drowsiness and getting “every minute of sleep you can get.” He explained that you can actually “bank” sleep on your off days with 90-minute or two-hour naps.

“Everyone should nap. For an athlete, napping should be part of their training program. No exceptions.”

Better sleep means better nutrition

Did you know that a lack of consistent sleep can impact your eating habits?

According to Jo, sleeping for less than six hours a night for 5–7 consecutive days leads to consumption of 600 surplus calories per day. He explained that with too little sleep, we’ll naturally replace fruits and vegetables with poor food as our brain strives to unlock reward pathways.

Sleep well and you’ll eat better.

High school student-athletes should avoid early mornings

It’s no secret that teenagers are wired differently from adults; this is the case in terms of sleep as well.

The key difference isn’t so much in how many hours a teenager needs versus an adult (all athletes should be getting 10–12 hours), but in scheduling. Teenagers are significantly more impacted by early mornings than adults are. When a teenager wakes up at 6 o’clock in the morning, it feels like the equivalent of 4:30 AM for an adult.

This is because younger people have internal clocks that are biologically shifted later than adults. So, just like an early morning feels excruciatingly early for a teenager, asking a 16-year-old to go to bed at 10:00 PM is akin to asking an adult to be in bed by 8:00.

Jo mentioned that there’s recently been plenty of discussion surrounding pushing school start times up to 9:00 AM to increase productivity in the classroom as well as student safety. Yes, you read that right — Jo explained that a high school in Virginia was actually able to reduce the rate of motor vehicle accidents only by adjusting the start of the school day to be a half-hour later (find the study here). All types of car crashes were reduced by 5.25%, accidents related to distracted driving dropped 8.7% and alcohol-related accidents went down a whopping 20%.

Training at peak performance: early morning or afternoon?

“Training early in the morning is a surefire way to guarantee sleep deprivation and an accumulation of sleep debt,” says Jo.

Scheduling early morning workouts inhibits sleep duration. The vast majority of student-athletes are night owls (and so are most people under 30 years of age), so with early morning training, they’re going to bed later than early risers and are still up early. There’s simply less sleep happening.

Sleep inertia is another issue with these early sessions. Here’s how Jo explained sleep inertia:

Sleep inertia is that groggy feeling we all experience shortly after waking up. It’s normal but it does take approximately 2–3 hours to go away. You don’t want to be doing key things within 1–2 hours of waking up. A sleepy brain is a drunk brain. Multiple studies show a lack of sleep as the equivalent to a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. Just as a drunk brain makes poor decisions, so does a sleepy brain.

“You aren’t morally superior because you train early in the morning. You are ineffective.”

By training in the afternoon rather than in the morning — without changing anything else — you’ll increase the likelihood of:

  • Improving performance
  • Decreasing injury rate
  • Decreasing illness rate

This is because athletes reach peak performance in the afternoon, coinciding with their optimal body temperature. Scheduling practice in the afternoon means better quality workouts with well-rested, alert athletes.

Fortnite, Netflix, and cell phones

Fortnite (and any device that emits blue light) is “so bad for athletes”, says Jo. This is because our brains are incapable of differentiating between blue light and sunlight. His stance is firm on this one: “No phones, no laptops, and no TV when you’re in bed. Your bed is for sleeping.”

If an athlete can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes of crawling into bed, Jo suggests they get out and do something — anything — as long it’s in dim light. Just laying there awake is not helpful.

Apparently, Fortnite has been so detrimental to athletes that professional sports teams, including NHL and MLB teams, have banned the video game from road trips and the clubhouse.

Speaking of professional athletes…

Jonathan filled me in on how much sleep a handful of professional athletes incorporate into their lifestyles.

Usain Bolt was known to credit sleep as the most important part of his training schedule, snoozing for 10–12 hours per night.

Usain Bolt kisses his 200m gold medal in Rio during the 2016 Olympic Games

Other big-name athletes we discussed included LeBron James, who catches Zs for 12–15 hours, Michael Phelps at 12–14, Michelle Wie and her 12-plus hours, and Maria Sharapova, who sleeps for over 10 hours a night.

Sleeping during competition

I asked Jo about how track and field student-athletes should approach sleep during competition weekends. His advice on this one was clear and concise: do whatever you can to keep your pattern. But, in the event you’re competing far from home, you’ll likely need to adjust your sleep schedule in order to effectively deal with jet lag. “Adaptation is key here,” says Jo.

The impact of sleep on mental health

Jo explained that consistently getting ample sleep is the single biggest contributor to mental health. Without it, you increase the risk of anxiety and stress, depression, and suicide.

And as for how a lack of quality sleep can manifest itself in a track and field athlete, Jo used the following example:

Imagine you’re running a 5K and the competitor in front of you is reachable. Without a proper sleep schedule leading into the competition, you won’t have the mental resources you need for a 600m kick. Instead, you’ll be able to put together a final 400m kick. Without sleep, you will give up far more easily due to lacking mental strength and stamina. If you want to win, manage your sleep.

Without sufficient sleep, you’ll have a shorter fuse, be more irritable, and as a result, become less coachable.

Planning your sleep

Before our conversation wrapped up, Jonathan wanted to add a note on using smartphone apps or watches, like Fitbit trackers, to plan your sleep:

Don’t.

“Don’t build your sleep schedule around these. They’re not accurate and often provide the wrong data. They’re easy to misinterpret and definitely will not help you.”

Take sleep seriously

Jonathan left me with some final takeaways on sleep for student-athletes:

Ignoring how sleep fits into our training schedule is a wasted opportunity to improve performance with very little effort. And yet, it has been relegated to an afterthought: something to overcome, something that weak people do…

A lack of sleep isn’t something that makes us tough or something that our athletes need to get over. It effectively determines how alert they are and their body clock times.

Keep it simple. Sleep enough and stick to a schedule. Integrate naps. Take sleep seriously.

“You snooze. You WIN.” — Jonathan Charest

Questions or comments about sleep for student-athletes?

Join the conversation with a highlight or comment.

Get in touch with Jonathan Charest: follow him on Twitter @jocharest1 or send him an email.

Or connect with me at brett@streamlineathletes.com.

Streamline Athletes

The resource for university-bound track and field and XC student-athletes

Brett Montrose

Written by

Founder & Managing Director of Operations at Streamline Athletes

Streamline Athletes

The resource for university-bound track and field and XC student-athletes

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