It may seem counterintuitive, but many top athletes—people who are otherwise in great health—suffer from sleep disorders.
Shouldn’t an intense workout leave you ready to drop off to sleep? Though logic and science both suggest that regular exercise can improve sleep, athletes are uniquely vulnerable to physical changes like neck thickening that can cause sleep apnea, as well as insomnia. Both can result in sleep deprivation, daytime sleepiness, and worsened physical performance, yet many athletes miss the warning signs.
Identifying The Problem
In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, researchers reported that as many as one in four professional athletes have a clinical sleep disorder. Disorders included sleep apnea and snoring, as well as insomnia and trouble falling asleep, triggering one in six athletes to take sleeping pills, especially when their sport is in season. Unfortunately, sleeping pills are not a replacement for a good night’s sleep.
Sleep issues are also extremely common among student-athletes, although insomnia was rare, with a rate of only 3% compared to 2% of students who are not athletes. Many student-athletes experience significant levels of sleep deprivation, however due to efforts to balance sports and academics, they may also suffer from frequent jet lag related to competition travel. Overall, an American College Health Association survey determined that student-athletes get less than seven hours of sleep an average of four days a week; female athletes report a greater number of such nights.
Reducing Risk Factors
As noted, stress and reduced sleep opportunities related to competition, travel and scheduling are key risk factors for sleep disorders in athletes, but they’re hardly the only ones. Rather, in weightlifters and football players, the greatest risk may actually be thickening of the neck.
Thick necks are quite common in weight-bearing sports, but this thickening makes it harder for the windpipe to remain open during sleep, leading to sleep apnea. The great basketball player Shaquille O’Neal has sleep apnea, as did the late NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White; it was a contributing cause to his 2004 death.
While people with insomnia can typically identify the issue and report it to a doctor, sleep apnea is much less obvious. A spouse or roommate might note snoring, but that alone is a risk factor or symptom of sleep apnea, not a complete diagnostic measure. You may also notice daytime tiredness, slowed reaction times, or poor post-workout recovery. The only way to properly diagnose sleep apnea, however, is through a comprehensive sleep study.
Treatment Makes the Difference
If a sleep disorder has derailed your training, it’s time to get to the bottom of the problem so you can get back to the top of your game.
Sleep studies examine a variety of metrics to determine whether you have a disorder or a more mild sleep disturbance, monitoring breathing rate, heartbeat, eye movements, and oxygen levels, among other factors. It’s important to ascertain exactly what’s going on when you’re at rest because, as Dr. Majid Jamali observes, sleep disorders can cause high blood pressure, weight gain, headaches and diabetes, as well as cognitive declines. Treating sleep issues isn’t just about your athletic performance, but about your long-term health.
Once your doctor helps you identify the problem, you can work together to develop a treatment plan. Though some individuals need medical aids such as a CPAP machine, many athletes respond well to environmental changes.
To begin with, pay attention to your mattress. Even if you have an excellent quality mattress, it may not be well proportioned to accommodate your height or weight. Nick Littlehales, a sleep coach who works with British soccer players, has a special sleep kit comparing different mattresses by user height and weight. For those who are especially tall or broad, a typical mattress may not offer the support or space necessary to sleep comfortably.
It’s also important to control environmental factors for optimal rest. At the U.S. Olympic Training Center, athletes are provided with rooms to sleep with low lighting and a lower than normal room temperature. These factors help stabilize their circadian rhythm and regulate the production of melatonin, which controls the human sleep cycle. You can replicate these conditions at home by lowering the lights toward evening, installing blackout curtains, and adjusting the thermostat before bedtime so that you sleep more deeply.
Top athletic performance hinges on split-second decision-making, focus and the subsequent recovery. Without sleep, you lose out on all of these. So whether you have a sleep disorder or you’re just struggling to stick to a workout schedule due to time restraints, make it a point to prioritize rest. Taking a day off won’t hurt your performance as much as a lack of sleep.