If you read just about any training article on this website you’ll see the words “sleep,” or, “rest” repeated several times. We constantly harp on the importance of sleep for the athlete or bodybuilder so let’s just skip the nagging this time and get straight into it.
Scientists actually don’t have a clear conclusion as to why humans sleep (7,16). The main hypothesis is that sleep simply serves as both a restorative period from the previous day’s work and a preparation period for the next day’s work (16). This concept seems incredibly important for the athlete or bodybuilder due to the extreme amounts of work performed each day. Therefore, sleep plays an extremely critical role in exercise recovery and overall performance – let’s check it out.
Sleep and Recovery
We know that one of the main outcomes of exercise, especially resistance training, is muscle damage – that’s the primary reason you get sore from working out. Damaged muscle tissue requires extra proteins to be created to help repair or replace damaged muscle proteins. The process of creating these new proteins is called, “protein synthesis,” and it’s a key component of bodybuilding and overall recovery (7). Several chemical markers and hormones are involved with sending the signals to increase or initiate muscle protein synthesis, and sleep has a huge effect on just about all of them (7,8,9,15,19,34,35,40).
When it comes to building muscle and training recovery, there’s two main classes of hormones that you should be concerned with: anabolic hormones and catabolic hormones. Anabolic hormones are responsible for building tissue and typically have a positive effect on protein synthesis – this class includes things like testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) (7). On the other hand, catabolic hormones are responsible for the breakdown of tissue in the body. When it comes to bodybuilding and recovery, cortisol is the main hormone you want to keep an eye on as it can influence the opposite effect of protein synthesis – this is termed, “protein breakdown” (7).
It’s not exactly 100% clear yet, but we can say with quite a bit of confidence that not getting enough sleep can have a major negative effect on the balance of these hormones. Research has shown that sleep-deprived subjects present with reduced testosterone and IGF-1 levels and also experience elevated cortisol levels (7). We also know that the vast majority of our natural human growth hormone is secreted during periods of deep sleep (8,9,13,15,34,40). What does this imbalance mean for the athlete or bodybuilder? In short, an extremely reduced recovery capacity (7,29,32,33,40). We even see evidence of this in studies that show high levels of protein breakdown during periods of sleep restriction (18,23).
Sleep and Performance
Research shows that the vast majority of athletes don’t get enough sleep, since workouts and dietary preparation can easily add a few hours to your daily schedule (7,16,21,33). What happens then, if you’re not getting enough sleep? It appears that the occasional night of sleep restriction doesn’t seem to have too extreme of an acute effect on exercise performance the next day – especially in strength training (4). A few nights of decreased sleep seems to have a more severe effect for endurance athletes as sleep has a direct effect on glycogen storage which is extremely important for endurance performance (24,35,36). So a day or two of bad/short sleep doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but that’s rarely the case in the real world as most people deal with chronic sleep restriction where they’re almost always behind on sleep (28). This leads to the issues detailed in the previous paragraph concerning hormones – gains go out the window when your hormones are not able to help you grow and recover. Studies show that both strength and endurance performance get worse as subjects get further sleep deprived (30) so being in a constant state of sleep deficiency more than likely reduces your adaptations to exercise and overall performance. If improving body composition is your goal, sleep restriction appears to increase appetite, especially for sugary foods, and may also slow metabolism which can cause more overall fat storage (3,7,16,23,36).
Real World Applications and Sleep Tips
So what can you do about this? And how much sleep should you be getting? We know getting plenty of sleep every night is tough in today’s world. But if your goals are anywhere along the lines of maximizing your potential, you absolutely need to make room in your daily schedule for sleep. The current recommendation for the average adult is 8-hours of sleep per night (31,39), but it’s thought that athletes probably need closer to 9-10 hours per day due to greater recovery needs (5). The good news is that it appears that you can actually use naps during the day to contribute to your overall daily sleep goals (5,10,14,41). The recommendation is that 80-90% of your total sleep time should come during the night, but the remainder can be achieved through naps (5). This method might be even more beneficial than getting all of your sleep over night, especially for muscle building as naps may help increase midday levels of anabolic hormones (14, 41). Utilizing naps to add to your total daily sleep can have a profound effect as studies show that simply increasing the daily amount of sleep can improve performance, reaction times, mood, and energy levels (21).
How can you go about maximizing your sleep time besides naps? There are a few nutrition ideas that might help boost sleep time and sleep quality. Research shows that a pre-bed time meal may help you fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer – the caveat is that you should eat at least an hour before bed (1,2,26). The science is inconclusive on what this meal should consist of, studies have found that several different macronutrient blends before bed seem to have similar effects on improving sleep quality (1,2). Both carbohydrates and protein seem to have a positive effect on sleep quality. Carbohydrates may increase the natural levels of tryptophan in the brain (12). Tryptophan is an amino acid that promotes calmness and can improve quality of sleep – turkey has a high tryptophan content which is a huge reason why Thanksgiving naps are the best. Studies have also shown that diets high in protein can promote better quality of sleep by reducing the amount of times you wake up throughout the night (20) – this seems to be a positive finding for the typical bodybuilder’s diet.
There does seem to be a few supplements that might have a positive effect on sleep as well. Tryptophan seems to be the most effective and you can usually find isolated tryptophan supplements at most sports nutrition stores (16). Melatonin has also been shown to have positive effects on sleep quality and may even reduce the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep (6,38). Tart cherry juice appears to be another great way of raising melatonin levels in the body without some of the negative side effects that some experience from taking actual melatonin (17,25). The increased melatonin levels might lead to improved sleep quality (17). Lastly, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a supplement many claim to improve sleep but studies are inconclusive on GABA’s effects on sleep. It does appear, however, that GABA might increase natural human growth hormone production during deep sleep (27).
Let’s face it, as an athlete or bodybuilder, you absolutely need sleep. I recall a podcast that posed a question to several elite powerlifters – would they choose 8-hours of sleep each night or performance enhancing drugs for optimal recovery and strength levels? All of them picked 8-hours of sleep each night. It really is that important. There’s no point in doing hardcore workouts if you’re consistently getting less than 6-hours of sleep per night. 8-hours is ideal, while 9-10 hours is even better. Remember, you can use mid-day naps to boost your overall sleeping time and that may actually be more beneficial than getting all of your sleep overnight. High protein diets and pre-bed meals at least an hour before bed seem to have a positive effect on sleep quality, while supplements like tryptophan, melatonin, and tart cherry juice might help improve sleep as well. If you’re serious about making gains, intense workouts and clean diets will only take you as far as your sleep numbers. If you want to maximize gains, crush the weights, grab a fork, and then hit the sheets.
At the time of publication, reference number 15 (Gunning, 2001) was no longer available as an abstract or full text. For now, the journal site is linked to both the citation and reference numbers throughout this article, but the article itself cannot be linked. If we come across an abstract or full text, we will be sure to update our links in this article.
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