This article was written by nutrition and sleep experts Ian Dunican and James Caldwell.
Sleep and the Athlete
Many of us will do anything to get better at jiu-jitsu. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers “ explains the 10,000-hour rule to achieve master status. But, while repetition and mat time is vital to the development of any jiu-jitsu practitioner, what we do off the mat is just as important. As athletes, we tend to focus mainly on the first two pillars of health which are diet and exercise. What is often overlooked is the third pillar, which is sleep, and the importance of sleep for performance, recovery, and cognitive function. Research on basketball players, swimmers, American football players, and other athletes has shown that getting more sleep improves playing accuracy, reaction time, speed, and metabolic factors as well as physical and mental well being. In addition, there is evidence that famous athletes like LeBron James, Venus Williams, and Steve Nash sleep a whopping10-12 hours a day, and a couple of recent reports say that there is even a link between sleepiness and player longevity (i.e., the likelihood that professional athletes will remain with the team that originally drafts them). What is sleep and why do we need it? The answer to this question is not fully known, but what we do know is that without sleep we cannot live or function at our best. On average a person requires somewhere between 7 -9 hours of sleep per night. However in many countries, we are getting between 6 – 7 hours, and if you work shift-work or travel a lot, you may be getting only 4- 5 hours per night. Sleep is like a fuel tank, what you take out you must restore. And while we wouldn’t dream of entering a competition on an empty stomach, many of us think nothing of struggling through the next match on an empty “sleep tank.”
The Sleep Cycle
So what happens when we close our eyes at night? A lot of people think the brain is inactive during sleep, but science tells a different story. The typical adult goes through 4-5 different cycles between lights-out and wakeup, and these cycles include two main types of sleep--non REM and REM. Non REM sleep has 4 stages ranging from light (1) to deep (3 & 4). Most of our deep sleep occurs early in the night.
During this time body and brain activity slows down as the processes important for the physical recovery needed after lifting weights, jiu-jitsu practice or normal daily activity occurs. REM sleep is when most dreams happen, and during REM the brain is very active. There is a REM episode on average about every 90 minutes. Most of our REM sleep occurs late in the sleep period, and while the exact purpose of REM sleep is not clear, it seems necessary for memory, learning, or mental restoration. What happens when we don’t sleep well or we don’t sleep enough? Years of research on the effects of sleep loss or sleep restriction have shown that insufficient sleep disturbs a number of physical and mental functions important to athletes. Not only does sleep loss affect performance in training and competition, but recovery rates are degraded as well.
Sleep problems affect glucose (blood sugar) regulation, growth hormone peaks, testosterone levels, muscle glycogen, and cortisol among other hormonal/endocrine factors. Why do you care? Blood sugar changes can throw off energy balance, Growth Hormone and testosterone reductions can interfere with muscle growth, and cortisol changes can create stress problems that can affect competition and teamwork. Taken together, this spells disaster for your performance on the mat.
Insufficient sleep degrades memory. Your brain is like a computer in some ways. It is the central command centre for your body. It needs to be switched off, backed up and rebooted from time to time in order for training to be most effective. When the amount of sleep and the pattern of Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep are not as they should be, memory, learning, and subsequent performance suffer.
Sleep loss slows you down, and since the difference between a win and a loss sometimes comes down to a fraction of a second, anything that changes reaction time is really important. Studies show that sleep-deprived individuals have about the same reaction speed as someone who is intoxicated to 0.08% BAC. Given that you can’t safely drive your car when your reaction time is degraded to the 0.05% BAC level, you can imagine what an even bigger reaction time change will make at jiu-jitsu training or competition. That feeling of being “grey”, slow, and muddled after a night of drinking should remind you that a night of short or poor sleep is just as bad!
Poor sleep degrades your performance. As jiu-jitsu is both physically and psychologically demanding, it is vital to achieve the required sleep to ensure quality performance on the training mats or in competition. Will you make the right judgment call? Will you go for a lock such as an armbar and end up in a worse position based on the wrong decision? Sleep loss or accumulated sleep debt will affect your ability to think quickly as well as your ability to revise plans or strategies in the moment. If you’re going to win, you’ve got to stay one to two moves ahead of your opponent, you’ve got to be fully aware of the “big picture,”, and you’ve got to do it all automatically. Sleepiness on the mat throws your competitive edge right out of the window.
So what can you do after reading this article? Following these sleep guidelines can help your sleep and greatly improve your performance. These tips can be especially helpful if you find that your only time to train falls within the evening hours due to family or work responsibilities:
- Have a regular sleep pattern; try to go to bed at the same time every evening whenever possible.
- Make it a priority and plan to get 7 – 9 hours per night of sleep--just like we schedule training, matches, meetings, and mealtimes.
- Avoid TV, smartphones, laptops and work for at least 60 minutes before going to bed
- If you’re not relaxed at bedtime, try reading a novel or listening to relaxing music to help you get sleepy. Studies show this is just as effective as a sleeping tablet.
- Use your bed for sleep and sex only. Working, talking on the phone, or using your laptop in bed will associate the bedroom with things that aren’t related to sleep.
- Make your bedroom quiet and comfortable and if possible keep the room dark and cool (18 C – 23 C). Consider using an eye mask and earplugs.
- Don’t lay awake thinking and watching the clock if you can’t sleep quickly once you go to bed. Instead, try getting up and reading or writing but avoid TV, cellphones, etc.
- If you consistently have issues sleeping consult a sleep physician or consult your general practitioner—you might have a sleep disorder.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes for at least 3 hours before bed.
Remember the 3 pillars of health and performance are exercise, nutrition, and sleep. To be your best both on the mat and off, you’ve got to give equal planning and priority to all three!
About the Authors Ian Dunican is the Director of Sleep4Performance working with athletes to maximize performance. He is an Ultramarathon runner and a Jiu-Jitsu student with Adam Metcalf at the Academy of Mixed Martial Arts in Perth, Western Australia. You can contact Ian at: firstname.lastname@example.org or keep up to date on his sleep4performance Facebook page John Caldwell, PhD is the Science Adviser for Clockwork Research, Ltd in London where he serves as an internationally recognised expert in sleep & performance enhancement. He has published numerous papers and book chapters, and he has delivered more than 100 presentations and workshops designed to help people optimise their performance in real-world settings.