Sleep and Recovery: What Every Athlete Should Know

Sleep and Recovery: What Every Athlete Should Know

Sleep and recovery are two aspects of the training regimen that many athletes overlook. However, cutting back on either can halt your gains, increase your risk of injury in the gym or on the road, and impede processes in your body that regulate, well, pretty much everything. We spoke with the experts at Michael Johnson Performance, a next-level training facility in McKinney, Texas, to help you get a handle on your sleep, learn how to optimize your recovery, and organize workouts that promote better muscle recovery and elevate your training.

Completely consumed, perhaps even a little obsessed, with improving human performance and conditioning, MJP uses decades of research on tried-and-true training techniques, the most cutting-edge innovative technology, and customized training plans to get the best performance out of athletes—ensuring that their potential is unbounded and ever-expanding. To put it briefly: The team can teach you a thing or two about getting in shape, performing at an elite level, and dealing with stress and fatigue brought on by under-recovery.

Meet the experts: 

– Lance Walker, M.S., P.T., is the Global Director of Performance at MJP and the former Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach with the Dallas Cowboys.

– Drew Little, C.S.C.S., a performance specialist at MJP where he coaches athletes training for the NFL Combine, NFL, MLB, MLS, NBA, and more.

  • Sleep provides more than just mental rest.
  • Sleep provides more than just rest; it recharges your "battery," also known as your nervous system, and replenishes your energy reserves. Naturally, the better you reload, the deeper and better you sleep. This is significant because if you don't allow your central nervous system (CNS) to recover, your fitness suffers because your CNS is in charge of triggering muscle contractions, reaction time, and pain response, and you risk overloading your body on a larger scale. Your workouts will become slower, weaker, and possibly less coordinated.

    Furthermore, your endocrine system and hormone profile are active while you sleep. "These are extremely important because they secrete hormones such as cortisol and testosterone, which cause protein synthesis [muscle growth]," Little explains. "When people are stressed, their cortisol levels rise, which can harm their performance and goals over time," he adds. For example, after a few days of being under-recovered, your testosterone levels will drop, affecting how much muscle you can gain as well as other factors such as sexual function.

  • The better you sleep tonight, the more intense your workouts will be tomorrow.
  • "The better you reload during sleep, the better you'll be able to tax your body the next day," Walker says. If you have a poor reload during sleep, your workout the next day may feel more difficult than usual. Or you may overreach to compensate for your lack of energy, increasing your risk of injury.

    "All your body has to do when you're sleeping is repair your muscles, breathe, and maintain your hormone levels," he says. It doesn't have to do as much as it does when you're awake, so it can devote the majority of its energy to repairing your damaged tissues. However, if you are getting poor quality or insufficient sleep, your body's ability to heal itself will suffer.

    Bottom line: Without proper rest and restoration, you begin to degrade muscle growth and recovery, and your central nervous system stops recharging, causing you to feel tired, unmotivated, and weak during workouts, Walker says, resulting in a negative feedback loop that can start a vicious cycle.

  • 8 hours of sleep aren't always necessary for athletes.
  • "Some people believe, 'Oh, I get eight to nine hours of sleep; that's enough,' but that's not always the case," Walker says. The quality of your sleep is most important. You can sleep for eight hours, but if the quality is poor, you won't recover as well as if you slept for six hours. You also need a good sleeping environment and good sleep hygiene, as well as good nutrition (no fatty, spicy, or ultra-processed foods right before bed) and the use of supplements (like melatonin and tart cherry juice).

  • Low-intensity physical activity is essential.
  • Muscular overtraining occurs when damaged tissue is not given enough time to heal. However, you can overwork your body by only doing high-intensity work, working out too frequently, and not resting enough. These are the most important causes of central nervous system overtraining. The solution: Include low-intensity exercises such as walking, hiking, swimming (with light effort), or biking. This can assist you in remaining active without overdoing it—hence the term "active recovery."

  • It is beneficial to keep track.
  • Tracking your recovery is similar to tracking your calories when you're on a diet. "We use a basic journal or monitor to test people's fatigue levels," Walker explains. Simple inquiries such as "How do you feel today?" "Are you in pain—and is your pain symmetrical? " and "How many hours did you sleep, and how well did you sleep?" " can reveal simple fatigue measures.

    You can try keeping your own sleep and recovery journal or invest in a product like Omegawave. "At MJP, we look at nervous system recovery using the Omegawave," Little says. Omegawave is a tool that was first used to assess Nike track athletes at an Olympic qualifier in 2000 and is now used by the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Eagles, and everyday athletes such as triathletes, cyclists, and people undergoing physical therapy to tell you if your body is ready for a seriously tough workout or if you should dial things back. By reading currents from your brain, the four-minute at-rest assessment (via a chest strap and app) can reveal stress and "read" your energy systems by looking at your ECG signal (your heart's activity), and show how prepared your nervous system is for exercise—giving you an idea of how much power, coordination, and energy you can give to your workout. So, after a week of business travel and little sleep, you might discover that a recovery run would be preferable to the HIIT workout you had planned. Learn more about Omegawave, the app, and personalized training plans.

    Other recovery-monitoring options are available at various price points. A blood analysis to look at creatine breakdown is a more expensive route, according to Walker. There's also Twitcher, which you attach to your index finger and shocks your flexor while measuring the neurological twitch response. At MJP, we also use The Bodyguard, a device with two electrodes that you attach right below your left collarbone and ribs. It tracks stress by using heart rate, heart rate variability, and respiration.

    Some wearables, such as the Garmin Forerunner 735xt GPS multi-sport watch, monitor and use your heart rate to determine how stressed or recovered you are; both will influence how long it takes between heartbeats. "Believe it or not, when you do a track session, your heart beat is very rhythmic because you're doing something consistently." The Garmin Forerunner measures your heart rate in one of two ways: via your wrist and/or via an additional heart rate monitor that you can wear while running (even swims). It will tell you how long it will take your body to fully recover after a tough workout.

  • Keep an eye out for signs of fatigue.
  • Pay attention to your body. Are your feet getting heavy? Are you not as balanced on some of those landings? Are your feet landing harder? These fatigue symptoms may not be detected by any test or machine. "In some ways, the critical eye of a coach, a coworker, or yourself—if you really understand your own system—can be your best indicator of fatigue," Walker says. Professional athletes excel at this. They can tell when they have that pop in their legs and when they don't. If you're exhausted, stop; it's better to rest than to injure yourself.

    Also, remember that a long aerobic slow-twitch muscle fiber workout, such as a light, long run, may take less time to recover from (as little as six hours) than an anaerobic alactic fast-twitch muscle fiber workout, such as a rigorous strength workout or sprint session, which can take up to 24-48 hours to fully recover.

    Each workout has a different effect on fatigue markers. However, if you keep track of your workouts, you'll be able to notice trends in your body's recovery time. "At MJP, we have hangover effect charts that show each client how long it will take him or her to recover," Walker says. "We also order workouts to optimize recovery," he adds. For example, if you're working on power through plyometrics like box jumps or broad jumps, do it early in the session because you'll be too tired by the end. This way, recovery can take place during the training day.

  • Don’t be afraid of getting fatigued
  • "We must exhaust you! Walker states. We must drag you into the anaerobic or aerobic system where you are miserable.

    You develop strength, speed, and other positive qualities by being uncomfortable—not in excruciating pain. There will be times when you don't feel well and workouts that are extremely difficult. And it's all right.

    Olympic-bound athletes are constantly being drawn toward their objective by discomfort. There were times when Michael Johnson, a retired American sprinter and four-time Olympic gold medalist, would run repeat 300s and feel absolutely drained two days later, according to Walker. That doesn't mean the instruction is subpar, though.

    Make sure you're stressing the appropriate system at the appropriate time when training for whatever it is, Little advises. You must strike a delicate balance and learn when to push yourself and when to back off.

  • Sleep habits are important
  • Late-night rituals: Most Americans work too much. You're probably using your laptop, checking emails on your phone, or using the late-night hours to catch up on social media or news. The issue with this is that the blue light these gadgets emit will deceive your brain into believing it is still daytime. Because your body believes you should be awake, Little says that your melatonin levels will be pushed down significantly. He continues, "Get off your electronic devices at least an hour before bed; this will assist in helping your melatonin levels naturally increase to where they need to be before you go to sleep. It's very calming to lie down, practice meditation, engage in positive self-talk, read a book, or converse with a person (we know, crazy stuff). Additionally, they can lower your heart rate.

    Sleep hygiene/bedroom environment: If you live in a city and the light from storefronts is always on outside your window, try blackout curtains. Little recommends setting your bedroom temperature to a maximum of 69 degrees F (your body prefers cooler temperatures to slow your heart rate and help you fall asleep faster). Invest in a quality mattress, sheets, and pillow. You want to create the ideal sleeping environment.

  • Your sleep is affected by what and when you eat.
  • Nutrition: After a workout, you need a quick-acting carb and protein combination. You've damaged your muscles and depleted your energy reserves, so you must provide your body with the nutrients it requires to resynthesize and rebuild. You must exercise caution when eating before going to bed. "If you eat a big meal and then go straight to bed," Little says, "you're giving your body the nutrients and calories it needs; but if you eat that big meal too close to when you fall asleep, your body will be more focused on digesting and assimilating and trying to pass on those nutrients than it will on recovering." Try to eat one to two hours before going to bed.

    Supplements: Is it difficult for you to relax and fall asleep? "You might need a melatonin (5 mg) supplement," Little suggests. "Or drink a warm glass of milk; people in India have done that for centuries to elevate their melatonin levels." Another supplement strategy is to drink an amino acid or whey protein shake right before bed. This will provide your body with the nutrients it requires to immediately begin rebuilding damaged muscle from training.

    Morning rituals: "On the front end, you have to get out of bed in the morning," Walker adds. It's not fun, especially on weekends, but you have to get up at the same time every day. (For example, don't sleep in until noon or 1 p.m. on weekends.) It only takes two days to disrupt your sleep pattern. Also, get some sunlight as soon as you wake up. "The first thing we do with our athletes is open the shades and get the sun coursing through to naturally kickstart the body," Walker says. Caffeine is one of the most potent nutritional supplements ever created. It is both safe and efficient (in certain amounts). It's a great way to start the day and gives you a boost of energy before your workout.