We all know sleep is important for our overall health. For athletes, a good night’s rest is particularly crucial not only for muscle recovery, but also muscle growth. In fact, without quality sleep, muscle mass decreases. So, if you want to meet your body composition goals, read on to learn more about the sleep-fitness connection and how you can maximize your zzz’s.

Stages of Sleep
There are two main stages of sleep: REM and non-REM sleep. We’re going to focus mostly on the latter, as this phase is essential for tissue repair and muscle growth.

During this deep sleep, your blood pressure drops; your breathing becomes slower; and blood flow increases to your muscles, delivering extra amounts of oxygen and nutrients. Your pituitary gland also releases a growth hormone, which helps increase muscle mass and prepare your body for tomorrow’s training session.

REM sleep, though only 20–25 percent of total sleep time in adults, also serves a critical restorative function: During these 90–120 minute sleep cycles, your muscles relax, relieving muscle tension and reducing extreme muscle soreness. Check out our article on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and DOMS treatment.

Sleep and Athletic Performance
We have all tossed and turned throughout the night, and felt the effects the next day: lower energy levels and higher grumpiness, which may directly impact athletic performance.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, in addition to muscle strength, muscle coordination improves with quality sleep. Basketball players who added two hours of sleep to their nightly routine experienced a 5 percent increase in reaction time and speed on the court.

Sleep Recovery for Athletes
The sleep-fitness connection works both ways: The muscle rebuilding process that occurs during sleep can help you perform better in the gym; in return, your workouts can help you fall asleep faster, have better quality sleep and wake up less frequently throughout the night. You can also implement these simple sleeping tips:

  • Sleep at least 8 hours a night. Though, you may need an hour more if you’re working out intensely, like training for a marathon.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. No screens 30–60 minutes before bed. Keep your room cool, dark and quiet. And go to sleep around the same time every night.
  • Limit alcohol. Alcohol reduces sleep quality, which may be why it interferes with growth hormone production. It also increases inflammation, which can make you more sore the following day.
  • Eat more protein. By eating 30 grams of protein half an hour before you go to bed, your body will have adequate amino acids for your muscles to do their repair work. (Stick to casein protein, found in dairy products.) Also, by eating a combination of protein and carbs within 30 minutes before and after a training session, you will stimulate an even greater release of growth hormone during sleep.

Now that you know why sleep is important for athletes, and how to improve your quality and quantity of rest, hit the hay and support your gains.