Employee & Community Health

Add 'sleep' to your student athlete's training regimen

1/2/2020 by Luke Radel, MD

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The life of a student athlete is busy. School, practice, games, homework and social demands all make for a full schedule. Sleep often gets overlooked when scheduling the day, but this can come at a price. A lack of quality sleep can greatly hinder a student athlete's academic and athletic performance. Your student athlete is experiencing an important period of physical, mental and emotional maturation. Sleep is vital to optimize healthy growth and development during this time. Here's how I respond to some of the common questions I get about sleep from parents of their student athletes. 

What are the benefits of sleep?

There's been extensive research describing the benefits of sleep. Getting adequate, quality sleep has been demonstrated to improve mood, energy levels, physical and cognitive performance, speed up recovery, decrease illness and reduce likelihood of injury. 

Adequate sleep has been shown to improve academic performance, which is the number-one priority for student athletes. Getting enough quality sleep, in addition to practice, training and good nutrition and hydration, is a vital part of achieving a student athlete's peak athletic performance. From an injury prevention standpoint, some studies have shown that even getting a single additional hour of sleep at night can drastically reduce injury risk. 

Sleep is also important in regulating several physiologic functions, including energy storage. Sleep deprivation has been shown to decrease glycogen storage, which is one way the body stores energy for intense, prolonged physical activity. 

How much sleep should I get?

The amount of sleep each individual athlete needs is a bit variable, since some need more than others in order to perform at their peak. However, for the majority of high school athletes, they should be getting a minimum of eight to 10 hours of sleep a night; younger athletes need even more. In addition to getting an adequate length of sleep, it's also important that sleep is high quality. 

I heard napping was bad for teenagers, is this true? 

Not all napping is bad. In fact, it's been shown to be beneficial if done appropriately, since it can provide a physical and mental boost. A daytime nap can help reduce sleep debt and improve your energy, alertness, memory and even reaction time and performance. Naps should be limited to about 30 minutes and shouldn't be done too late in the day, since prolonged naps or napping too late in the day can interfere with nighttime sleeping. 

If the athlete is excessively sleepy during the day, they're probably not getting adequate restorative nighttime sleep. Excessive daytime sleepiness can also be a symptom of depression in children, so alert your child's primary care provider if you're noticing a pattern of increased daytime sleepiness or other signs or symptoms of depression. 

Is it okay if my athlete snores?

Snoring should not be brushed aside or ignored. Snoring can be a sign of a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea. If your athlete consistently snores, then you should discuss this with your primary care provider to see if an evaluation by a sleep medicine specialist would be helpful. 

What should I do if I'm having trouble sleeping?

Sleep difficulties can be due to a variety of reasons. Some student athletes have a difficult time falling asleep, while others may have trouble staying asleep or wake up frequently at night. Certain medical conditions can cause sleep issues, but most of these can be addressed by optimizing your sleep hygiene. 

Improving sleep includes practices such as:

  • Having a consistent bedtime routine, including going to bed and waking up at consistent times. 
  • Creating a relaxing and soothing environment, such as a bath, soothing music or meditation. 
  • Making the room cool, dark and quiet. White noise or fans help some people sleep. 
  • Avoiding cell phones and other screen time at least one to two hours before bed; artificial light can be stimulating and make it more difficult to fall asleep. 
  • Avoiding heavy meals or exercise within two hours of bedtime, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Hunger also affects sleep, so try having a light snack before bedtime. 
  • Avoiding caffeine late in the day, including coffee, soda, tea, energy drinks and chocolate. 

If sleep problems persist despite these recommendations, consider discussing your student athlete's sleep with your primary care provider. 

Dr. Luke Radel practices in Mayo Clinic Primary Care's Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). He is board certified in both pediatrics and sports medicine. Dr. Radel serves as the volunteer team physician for the John Marshall High School football team and has also worked with the Rochester Grizzlies and Austin Bruins hockey teams. He has experience treating youth, collegiate and professional athletes.