Sleep vs. Training: Which is More Important?

It is 5:00 AM, and my phone alarm begins playing a soft melody, attempting to gently coax me out of a restful sleep while bluntly reminding me: “You are an adult. This is not a vacation. Get up and face reality.”  I roll out of bed, wake up my son and daughter, and try to put on my best parent/coach face along with whatever workout clothes are on top of the stack.  Weightlifting training begins at 5:15 AM.

Some mornings, however, I do not want to get out of bed.  I find myself questioning the early morning training sessions and wondering . . .

  • If an athlete is tired, is it better to sleep than to train?
  • How much sleep does a young athlete need?
  • What is the worst that could happen if an athlete trains tired?

And I always vow to go to sleep earlier the next night . . . which rarely ever happens!

Recently, I discovered some great articles written by Tuck, a sleep consultant firm, that contain research on sleep and athletes.  Of particular interest to youth weightlifters:

An adolescent athlete needs at least 9 hours of sleep per night.

Thirty-second Snatch Grip Lift-Off Holds are a favorite way to develop the posterior chain. They can be done with minimal weight (50 to 65% of snatch max) and build strength in the first pull.

Sleep allows the body to recover from the physical stresses of the day, as well as process new information and commit it to memory.  During sleep, the body experiences higher activity levels of cell division and regeneration, which speeds up muscle recovery.  The stress hormone, cortisol, is also regulated during sleep.

In addition, during REM sleep, the Hippocampus works to transfer recently learned information to the neo-cortex for later recall.  In other words, you are creating so-called “muscle memory” during REM sleep.  “Muscle memory” is the ability to quickly recall how to conduct frequently performed tasks.  This is important in a sport like weightlifting, which requires fast reaction time.  Fractions of a second can be the difference between missing and making a lift.

The Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a study in 2014 that found adolescents who played a game after getting fewer than 8 hours of sleep were nearly twice as likely to get injured.  

Lack of sleep can shorten an athlete’s career.

A 2013 study published in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine followed 80 Major League Baseball players over three seasons. Their sleeping habits were recorded before the start of the 2010 season and ranked according to a sleepiness scale. Players who scored high for sleepiness were less than 40 percent likely to still be playing three seasons later, compared to 72 percent of players who scored low on sleepiness.

Growth hormones are released during deep sleep.  

Human Growth Hormone (hGH), which promotes muscle strength, tissue repair and recovery of the body and muscles, is produced during deep sleep.  An natural increase of hGH can be promoted by both exercise and sleep.

Some top-level athletes attempt to gain a competitive advantage by taking supplements of human growth hormone.  However, hGH is prohibited both in- and out-of-competition under section S2 of WADA’s List of Prohibited Substances and Methods.  You can encourage your body to produce more hGH naturally by getting extra sleep.

hGH is a powerful hormone.  Maximize your body’s ability to make it by getting more sleep.

More sleep = better athletic performance.

The researchers at Tuck presented four sleep studies performed on athletes.  In all four instances, increased sleep led to improvements in athletic performance:

  • Swimming: In 2007, researchers asked a group of swimmers to sleep 10 hours a day for six to seven weeks and found notable improvements. Swim times were faster, and reaction times and turn times in the water improved. Kick stroke count increased as well.
  • Football: A similar regimen (10 hours of sleep per day during heavy training) for football players also produced improvements. Sprint times for both 20-yard and 40-yards declined by 0.1 seconds. The players also reported improved mood.
  • Tennis: When women’s tennis players increased their nightly sleep to 10 hours, they also experienced improved sprint times by 1.5 seconds as well as their serve accuracy by 23.8 percent.
  • Basketball: A 2011 study of basketball players found that getting two hours more of sleep each night boosted their speed by 5 percent and their shooting accuracy for both free throws and three-point shots by 9 percent.

Bottom Line: Sleeping less to train more is the equivalent of trying to fill a bucket full of holes with water by turning on the faucet to full blast.  No matter how much water you put in the bucket, you will not make progress until you stop to fill the holes.  Similarly, sleeping less to train more will produce sub-optimal results.  Sleep allows the muscles to recover and rebuild, “filling the holes” of the body’s water bucket, and allowing a weightlifter to make gains.  

If you want to improve your weightlifting performance, try sleeping more!

As for my family, we are going to experiment with 10 hours of sleep.  5:00 AM minus ten hours–ooh, that means bedtime moves to 7:00 PM.  Is it even possible to go to sleep at 7:00 PM?  I will keep you posted.

For more research on sleep and athletic performance, review these articles by Tuck:

Sleep and Athletes

Sleep and Human Growth Hormone

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