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The importance of sleep for exercise recovery + performance

Hadyn Luke posted this on Tuesday 13th of August 2013 Hadyn Luke 13/08/2013

Tags: Client analysis


This blog looks at the importance of sleep, in particular its benefits for exercise recovery and performance.

When clients talk to fitness professionals about post-exercise recovery, their first thought tends to be about sports nutrition or protein for muscle repair and carbohydrate supplementation to restore glycogen stores.

However, one of the most important elements of post-exercise recovery is good old-fashioned sleep.

Sleep is essential for health and wellbeing, in particular it will:

  • Help you perform better at sport and other physical activity
  • Boost your immune system
  • Reduce the likelihood of a stroke or heart disease
  • Improve memory function, creativity and learning ability
  • Reduce stress levels and depression

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can cause changes to our hormone levels, affecting muscle recovery, aerobic endurance and the rate of perceived exertion (see our blog on Using the RPE scale).

It can also affect an individual’s ability to respond to heavy training, as a lack of sleep can lead to long-term problems with tissue repair and growth. Personal trainers may have clients who overtrain as a result (see our blog on Resistance training: how to avoid overtraining).

Recent research on sleep deprivation

An article by Elizabeth Quinn entitled: Sleep Deprivation Can Hinder Sports Performance (About.com website, Sports Medicine section) states that:

“Sleep researchers are discovering that sleep deprivation can have a big impact on our basic metabolism and not getting enough sleep slows glucose metabolism by as much as 30 to 40 percent.”

One study carried out by Eve Van Cauter PhD from the University of Chicago Medical School on 11 healthy young men aged 18-27 found that participants metabolised glucose less efficiently when they only had four hours sleep a night over a period of six nights. They also had higher levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone related to impaired recovery in athletes, and a reduced ability to manage glucose levels.

As both glucose metabolism and cortisol status are essential for sports performance, a personal trainer working with athletes, professional sports people and the general public should advise their clients to make sure they get sufficient sleep for optimum performance.

Short-term recovery

A personal trainer will recommend that those training on a regular basis should build in reasonable breaks between workouts to allow the body time to recover. This may include active recovery days and activities related to health and fitness, for example:

  • carrying out everyday activities such as shopping or taking the family to the park
  • gentle exercise such as walking, yoga or stretching
  • having a massage to reduce aches and pains
  • looking at your diet and optimising your intake for your training intensity (see our blog on Effects of protein and carbohydrate on resistance training)

How to get a good night’s sleep

If a personal trainer is working with a client who is struggling to get a good night’s sleep, they could make some of the following recommendations:

  1. Invest in a high-quality mattress that provides the right levels of support and contains natural fillings that will wick away moisture to prevent overheating.
  2. Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime, choose a milky drink instead.
  3. Ensure that your bedroom is a restful environment: get rid of clutter, make sure it’s well ventilated, quiet and dark.
  4. Avoid playing computer games, working late or surfing online too close to bedtime.
  5. Try and stick to regular hours for sleeping and waking.

In conclusion

Fitness professionals should always monitor their clients’ workouts and look out for those affected by sleep deprivation. A client should have a training log with structured recovery incorporated into their fitness programme.

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