Uniting sleep and high-intensity exercise : The importance of sleep

A few weeks ago, Nap&Up conducted a survey to better understand the sleep ritual of high-performance athletes.

For athletes who train several times a day, one tool is essential: a nap. There are numerous reasons why athletes rely on naps: concentration, vigilance, regulation of stress etc.

Do these reasons sound familiar to you? Indeed, they are not only part of the daily life of high-level athletes but also of the problems that we can all encounter during our active life.

“Mind and body are extremely connected in sport, it is necessary that both have a good recovery”

– Antoine Conta, MEHB Player and Physical Trainer

Our survey was conducted among the players of the Massy Essonne Handball club. The players, currently playing in the second division, have to manage their daily lives, one or two training sessions a day, and long trips for weekend games.

According to our results, 100% of the players surveyed believe that sleep is an essential tool for their performance. In fact, some admit that sleep is an indispensable element that allows them to maintain a perfect balance with diet and workouts.

92% of players take micro-naps every day and 85% do so on the day of a match. Unanimously, this practice allows them to better concentrate, to recharge their bodies, allow their minds to recover, and limit injuries.

Napping allows for learning new physical skills

It has been proven* that motor memory abilities (memory of skills, sensori-motor habits and gestural skills) are improved by taking short naps. This type of memory is particularly important in sports when it comes to learning new movements and techniques to improve performance.

For example, in handball, players learn new “triggers” to change their playing habits and surprise the opponent during games. Napping after learning new strategies allows them to boost their memory abilities.

*.Sleep Med. 2006 Sep;7(6):508-12. Epub 2006 Aug 23; Daytime naps improve procedural motor memory by Backhaus JJunghanns K.

Reducing stress hormones and strengthening the immune system

A study conducted by Professor Brice Faraut in 2015 highlighted the impact of napping on levels of stress hormone secretion in athletes.

After reducing the duration of their sleep by 2 hours, some athletes were allowed to take 20 minutes power naps and others not. The results showed that those who napped did not experience an increase in the release of stress hormones in contrast to those without naps! Also, we could observe a return to normal immune disturbances that occurred following the deprivation of these 2 hours of sleep, only in those who napped.

Taking short naps is therefore more beneficial for an athlete who would like to reduce the negative effects of a poor quality of sleep but also to promote their muscular anabolism through the reduction of stress hormones. Naps help to reduce the negative effects of poor sleep quality and to achieve a return to normalcy of an immune system degraded by agitation or not optimal.

Preserving testosterone levels, the muscle building hormone

As explained earlier, power naps help decrease the secretion level of stress hormones, such as cortisol. This is a very good thing for athletes! Cortisol plays the opposite role of testosterone for the muscle: while the latter promotes muscle anabolism, or the construction of the muscle, the cortisol decreases it!

This hormone will play an important role in the destruction of muscle tissue, lowering testosterone levels and preventing the body from storing sugars in the form of muscle glycogen.

More simply put: the more stressed we are, the higher our cortisol levels are and the harder it is to build muscle because of falling testosterone levels. A second effect of cortisol is difficulty in fat loss as it strengthens the effects of estrogen in our bodies.

And so, napping allows for the maintenance of an individual’s athletic performance, as well as the maximization of muscle building, through the reduction of our stress!

Boost muscle fiber construction

Furthermore, the effect of naps on sports performance also includes the quality of rest it brings to the human body.

As Dan McCarthy, a sports performance consultant with the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, said, “Sleep is the time when the body recovers from the constraints imposed on it and when repair of the muscles and connective tissue begins […] and naps are an excellent tool for athletes in training or in competition.”

In fact, sleep is one of the major tools for muscle development but is also one of the most neglected aspects of sports. Even if our body seems inactive during our rest periods, it is in these moments that our body realizes what we need from it: to build muscle in order to gain athletic skills.

The process of repairing muscle fibers (broken during training) occurs mostly during our sleep, and more specifically during our deep sleep because it is during this catalytic phase that our body releases the growth hormone that stimulates the reconstruction of muscle tissue.

In this sense, long naps of 45 to 90 minutes allow us to enter this state of deep sleep and thus have access to the Holy Grail that is the secretion of the growth hormone.

Healthy sports dynamic

Napping in general is therefore a particularly effective tool for athletes in the pursuit of muscle building and improvement in their athletic performance.

As we all knew before, lack of sleep is indeed dangerous in terms of the effectiveness of training. It is well known that continuing to train despite a lack of rest, can easily cause a lack of muscle coordination and therefore maximize the chances of injury.

We are not in control of the quality of our deep sleep when we sleep at night, however it is our responsibility to nap during the day to allow our body to fully recover.

To summarize, whether you are a professional athlete or amateur athlete, getting the most out of your sleep by combining it with a short daytime nap is a great way to improve your performance. This form of recovery will help you achieve good fitness, nutrition and health.

🖋 A word of our expert, Laurène Clavier, mental trainer :

The lifestyle of a high-intensity athlete is vital in the search for optimal performance: fitness, nutrition and of course sleep are essential points.

It goes without saying that an athlete who is “properly rested” will, like anyone else, be in full possession of their physical and cognitive abilities (reactivity, decision-making, better reflexes, etc.) and thus more capable of being successful.

As a mental trainer, specialized in the sophrology of sport, the challenges of recovery come up very often in my clients. For example, upkeeping a good quality of sleep or finding a good routine for a serene sleep are themes often addressed. More and more often, I am called upon to acquire micro-nap techniques in the idea of “refreshing” during a day of training or competition.

In fact, the majority of athletes I work with who train twice daily are fans of the nap in line with the audio accompaniment and a limited time among others. They optimize their naps and quickly notice the benefits in their daily lives. From my perspective, micro-naps are a real catalyst for resources and it has the advantage of being very simple in its implementation and inexpensive in time… the ideal in the often busy life of a competitor!


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