Sleep. What Really Goes On When We Get Our Nightly Shut-eye.

March 26, 2018

Did you know that the average night’s sleep of an elite athlete is only 6.3 hours!?! Surely this isn’t enough for optimal performance, recovery and to be the worlds best? As it turns out, there is growing evidence that confirms these suspicions…

What happens when we go to sleep?


When we sleep our body prioritizes physical repair before brain repair. This means that as soon as we get to sleep we look after our bodies first! Have you ever felt the cogs going a bit slower after a restless night? Well this is why. We get the big physical gains (athletes need to note this) only in deep REM cycles which occur in first 1-4 hrs. So it’s important to maximize sleep quality to ensure you reach these ‘deep’ REM cycles (and to prepare for the next day’s GDS of course!).


After this – and only if you get enough deep REM sleep, then your body drifts in and out of deep sleep (REM 2) and this is what assists brain repair. As a side note, this is when you dream and you will only remember a dream if you wake up during it.


Ok, so what happens if we don’t get enough sleep?


Well the take away from this is that if you don’t get enough sleep, your cognitive function will go downhill and it’s likely that your body won’t repair to its full potential either. In a clinical trial with sleep deprived athletes the sleep scientists found that physically they were OK (strength, speed and power) but cognitively they performed significantly worse. This impacts everyone in daily life, but especially those who need to make quick decisions, rely on reaction speed or those who call upon deep thinking.


So how much should we aim for?


Long story short is: we need more! Sleep cycles are around 90 mins, but it takes 30 mins to get into deep repair sleep. It’s very important to note you have to be asleep (not just laying there with your eyes closed) to reap the benefits discussed above. Naps can be useful, but only to top up the total amount of sleep. Studies show more is more! So aim for 9-10 hours per night and you’ll be doing well! It’s also really important to keep your wake up time within half an hour each day. This is why we often feel more tired after a sleep in!


Important points to takeaway:

  • Try and get as much sleep as possible. Aim for 9-10 hrs.

  • Nap/rest for 30 mins before you hit deep sleep. So get in bed 30 mins before you want to be completely asleep.

  • After a deep REM cycle we need at LEAST 1 REM 2 cycle for brain repair (90mins).

  • Try your best to wake at the same time everyday (yes even weekends) and only vary by 30mins.

  • MAXIMIZE the quality of your sleep (block out light, sound etc – see below).


Tips on how to sleep better and improve the quality of your slumber:

  1. Develop a good routine: Set and stick to a similar bed time and wake up time each day.

  2. Develop pre-sleep habits: Write your to do list or any pressing thoughts for the next day on a notepad and DO NOT store this in the bedroom.

  3. Meditation: I like guided meditation and currently use the app ‘Headspace’. But there are many options available.

  4. Warm your body before bed: Yes you read correctly. A shower before bed can help vasodilate the blood vessels which improves sleep. Also, remember to keep your feet warm.

  5. The ideal temperature to set your aircon? 18 degrees celsius.

  6. Turn the lights down/off 1 hour before sleep and resort to candles or glowing lamps. During this time steer clear of your mobile phone and TV.

  7. Ensure the room is completely dark and quiet! This means blackout curtains, no pets and phones on sleep mode.

  8. No caffeine from midday. Use a caffeine timing app if you want to get more accurate here.

  9. Reduce alcohol. Even if you think you this helps you sleep better,  it actually decreases the quality of your sleep.

  10. Lastly, but not to be forgotten is don’t hydrate too much before bed. We don’t want to ruin your perfect sleep with a midnight run to the bathroom!


Time to get to work on your sleep hygiene and improve your slumber! Good Luck!



About: Austin Smith - Website - Instagram - Facebook


‘Aussie’ has been involved with high level Rugby from a young age and developed his skills training at Premier Division (UQ), state (Queensland U19) and national (Australian 7’s) levels. Aussie completed his Bachelor degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology at The University of Queensland and is a qualified accredited Clinical Exercise Physiologist under ESSA. Aussie has had a wide range of exercise prescription experience, ranging from hospital setting rehabilitation and aged care, to elite athlete Strength and Conditioning. He is now the Senior Strength Coach and Facility Manager of Pinnacle Performance.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Featured Posts