Sleep Habits in Student Athletes


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I have been a certified athletic trainer for four years and one of the most popular topics of conversation in the athletic training room is sleep. I have found that some athletes love sleeping and or napping or they are so busy with school, work and sports that they just don’t have time to sleep. ” Sleep plays a very important role when it comes to body and brain function. Sleep plays a role in, cognitive performance (learning, memory, decision-making and vigilance), body healing, recovering, metabolism, muscle growth and weight control as well as stress/anxiety, mood/depression and emotional control (Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes).” Every one of these areas plays a critical role in how a student-athlete preforms in the classroom, on the field/court/pool/ice and in social situations. In this article we will discuss healthy sleep habits and what can occur when healthy sleep is not achieved.

A common question I hear every day is how long should I be sleeping? “Research has shown that student-athletes between the ages of 17-22 require approximately 8 to 10 hours of sleep for optimal health and functioning (Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes).” Although most of this sleep will occur at night, it is possible to make up for some lost sleep at night by napping during the day. When someone asks you how long you slept last night, you are encouraged to include the number of hours you spent napping during the day as well.

Some student-athletes may be sleeping the recommended 8 to 10 hours, however they may wake up still feel tired. A factor that may affect this is the quality of sleep they are getting. Poor sleep quality can occur from an injury. If a student-athlete is in pain or can’t get comfortable because their athletic trainer made them wear a knee brace to bed it may affect the quality of sleep they are getting. Poor sleep quality can also occur from what is called sleep fragmentation, a fancy term for when sleep is frequently interrupted. Even though all the pieces of sleep may add up to enough time, frequently interrupting sleep can lead to poor health and functioning. The last way poor sleep quality can occur is when a student-athlete is trying to sleep but just cannot fall asleep. This can occur at the beginning of the night, after an awakening in the middle of the night, or early in the morning if the individual cannot get back to sleep. These factors are common among student-athletes and will play a role in how you function the following day.

"In 2016, the NCAA released data showing that when student-athletes were asked how many of the past seven days they had awoken feeling rested, the answers were discouraging. Sleep science already is being used to help athletes spend more time snoozing — an important component of injury recovery, athletic performance and cognitive retention (NCAA)."
“In 2016, the NCAA released data showing that when student-athletes were asked how many of the past seven days they had awoken feeling rested, the answers were discouraging. Sleep science already is being used to help athletes spend more time snoozing — an important component of injury recovery, athletic performance and cognitive retention (NCAA).”

I am always amazed when I hear student-athletes discuss what time they went to bed, which usually occurs around midnight or after. I consider myself to be an old man because I cannot stay up past 10:00 pm. According to research this is normal, “the nighttime sleep of a typical adult age 30-60 will occur in the range of 10:00 pm to 7:00 am. For those in their late teens and early 20’s, this biologically determined period is shifted later, to approximately midnight to 9:00 am (Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes).” As a young student-athlete, it is completely normal to not be tired at 10:00 pm. Going to bed around midnight is normal and healthy as long as you are getting the recommended eight to ten hours of rest. When a sleep schedule is forced on a student-athlete sleep problems can occur therefore leading to poor performance in the classroom or on the field/court/pool/ice.

The environment of where the sleep is occurring also plays a role in the quality of sleep you are receiving. Research indicates “an ideal sleep environment should be cool, dark and comfortable. It should be a place where only sleep occurs; activities other than sleep in bed can lead to sleep problems (Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes).” Most student-athletes do not have a healthy sleep environment especially when living in a dorm room. It is very common for student athletes to eat, study or just hang out with friends on their bed. It is recommended that these activities occur off the bed, at a desk or a common area. If these activities continue to occur on the bed it is possible poor sleep quality will occur.

Next, I will briefly go over what healthy sleep regulates. Proper sleep plays a critical role in healing and recovery of the body and brain. “Sleep in humans serves the important function of maximizing rest, cell and tissue repair, and healing (Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes).” If you have suffered an injury from sports or feel stressed out from school or your sport, getting proper sleep can help.  Sleep also plays an important role in weight control. “Shorter sleep times, poor quality sleep, and sleep that is out of sync with internal rhythms can lead to weight gain and obesity (Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes).” Even if you work out daily, eat properly and are still curious to why you are still gaining unwanted weight, it is important to evaluate your sleep habits and see if that is playing a role. Poor sleep can also lead to stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety can occur when sleep is disrupted. “Individuals with sleep disturbances are less able to respond to stresses as they occur. They become more pessimistic, more irritable and more emotionally out of control (Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes).” It is important to note that being stressed or having anxiety throughout the day can also lead to poor sleep. If this occurs try to do something that relaxes you prior to going to bed.

If you find you are suffering from poor sleep quality, it is important to diagnose the problem and treat it. If you are having issues with sleep, feel free to speak with your athletic trainer, primary care physician, a behavior sleep medicine psychologists, or a sleep scientist.

References:

Grandner M. Healthy Sleep for Student-Athletes: A Guide for Athletics Departments and Coaches. March 2016:1-8.

 

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