Athletes Are Embracing The Science of Sleep. Here's How.

05/24/2017 06:08 pm ET Updated May 24, 2017

Because athletes, trainers and many sports enthusiasts want peak performance, you can find a variety of sleep-related solutions in the marketplace.

Multivu (used with permission)

In the play Henry IV, Shakespeare describes sleep as nature’s gentle healer that enables us to close our eyelids and forget our worries. Unfortunately, the healing powers of a good snooze aren’t available to everyone. Today, nearly one-third of the U.S. population are lacking sleep.

A busy routine can interfere with our ability to get proper rest. However, sports science is revealing new ways to improve the process of sleep. Lebron James, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps and teams such as New England Patriots and Portland Trailblazers are focusing on quality rest to enhance the athlete’s ability to recover from inflammation, joint and muscle pain, fatigue and injury. Moreover, trainers are beginning to consider sleep as the third leg of a new performance trifecta that begins with nutrition and training, and ends with optimal recovery.

During the NBA season, Lebron James hibernates in a hyperbaric full-body chamber where the user inhales 100 percent oxygen while sleeping. The oxygen reach damaged cells and support the body’s healing process. The cost per session can run as high as $300-$400. But in high-stakes professions, sluggishness is much more costly than shelling out a few hundred bucks a pop. It’s rumored that James travels with a large van that contains equipment for cryotherapy and other treatments that are available on the go.

A person who stays awake for 17 hours can be impaired equivalent to the level of legal intoxication, Cheri Mah tells ESPN. She’s a research fellow at UCSF Human Performance Center who advises athletes on sleep habits. Top athletes who use a hyperbaric chamber include Michael Phelps and Novak Djokovic.

Others prefer simpler, non-tech solutions, such as the benefits of a quality mattress that allows you to get deep, undisturbed sleep. Serena Williams boasts a 120 mph serve on the tennis court. Off the court, she’s a decade-long owner of a Tempur-Pedic mattress, and she says it keeps her body rested and rejuvenated. To facilitate sleep, a good mattress should adapt to the user’s shape and weight, relieve pressure points and reduce motion transfer to ensure undisturbed sleep. Serena plans to return to tennis after childbirth to pursue the all-time women’s record in Grand Slam titles.

Another non-tech approach is to keep a consistent sleep-wake pattern. When the Portland Trailblazers travel across the country, they encourage players to sleep at 1am or 2am local time so they remain in sync with Oregon’s time zone. In other words, the team doesn’t try to adapt to a new time zone when they’re on a road trip. A sleep doctor who served as consultant for the Blazers estimates a 15-20 percent improvement in players’ performance.

Because athletes, trainers and many sports enthusiasts want peak performance, you can find a variety of sleep-related solutions in the marketplace. For example, there are nasal strips (also known as snoring strips) that are popular with NFL players and Olympians. These strips open up your nasal passages so you can breathe better at night. Then there’s light therapy which mimics the timing of sunlight in your area. You can find gradual light devices that diminish the effects of jet lag by improving the sleep process.

To be sure, fancier solutions are out there. Some athletes, including runners and boxers, use so-called “altitude tents” that are designed to mimic the low availability of oxygen at mountainous training grounds. It’s called hypoxic treatment, where you sleep inside a tent and the oxygen-reduced air induce your body to produce more red blood cells and hemoglobin. This process supposedly aids the body’s recovery.

Whether you like technology or simple approaches such as getting a good night’s sleep on a Tempur-Pedic bed, there are ways to improve your quality of rest. The science of sleep is evolving and it’s key to find solutions that are effective and help you tackle your unique challenges.

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