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How do the best athletes get even better?

by Dr. Adrian Williams

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An integral part of professional sports (we suppose) is financial gain, so it’s not surprising to hear that researchers are always looking into how one can enhance performance and optimize recovery. Conveniently, the results of this research can often apply to more than just elite athletes. We can all learn to recover better and faster, no pro contract required.

So what is done by elite athletes to enhance performance? The obvious answer, of course, is training—and more training. But with training comes the potential for stressing the body, most often the muscles and sinews, not to mention the mind, which can limit the body’s ability to train at all. So it makes sense that enhancing the recovery needed to aid in even more training would be a win-win situation.

But what might enhancing recovery involve? Sports such as soccer, football and tennis have recognized that post-exercise fatigue is multifactorial and includes dehydration, glycogen depletion, muscle damage and mental fatigue. Tackling these might include physical treatments such as light exercise or “warming down”, stretching and hydration, but it will always include rest and, by extension, sleep.

Sleep has many potential functions. Perhaps some time ago sleep helped to keep us out of harm’s way when it was dark and conserve energy when finding food would be difficult, but much more probably, sleep allows the brain time to consolidate what is learned that day, and allows the body time to repair itself, to recover from the effects of the wear and tear of the day. So, if ordinary activities lead to the need for sleep, the activity levels of an athlete—or just you or I exercising—must make sleep even more fundamentally important for recovery.

Exercise itself is an accepted strategy to improve an insomniac’s sleep because increasing the core body temperature is a drive to sleep. Given that information, athletes may already have an increased propensity to sleep, which will aid in their recovery. So how can that sleep be even better?

Mindfulness is one way to do this, with studies showing it can lead to improvements in sleep quality. Meditation has also been shown to reduce the perception of pain, so again a win-win situation, while blood lactate concentration after exercise (a measure of the body’s efficient use of energy stores) is significantly reduced in regular meditators indicating that exercise stress is lessened.

Improved athletic performance is a holy grail, exemplified in the Rio 2016 Olympics, where structured training allowing athletes, aided by better sleep, to peak at exactly the right time. So exercise to your heart’s delight, but don’t forget the recovery.

This piece was produced in partnership with Nike Training Club. To get started on your fitness journey, download the NTC app here.

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Dr. Adrian Williams

Dr. Adrian Williams is the UK's first Professor of Sleep Medicine with a lifetime of experience in the field. This began at Harvard, followed by many productive years at UCLA, and now London. His clinical experience is extensive; his research has encompassed most areas of sleep, with his current interest focused on meditation as a way of improving sleep and, as a natural consequence, health.

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