Sleep may protect teen athletes from injury

Chaz Stringer

Chaz Stringer

Learning to balance homework with games, practice, and travel is part of life for any student who wants to be involved with sports. Add to that the emotional aspects of winning and losing and you have the perfect formula for sleep deprivation and a lifestyle that can take its toll on the body.

As a sophomore defensive back on the Ben Davis High School football team, Chaz Stringer loses up to 90 minutes of sleep a night during the week. That’s due in part to his emphasis on keeping good grades. “Sometimes, I don’t get around to homework until nine or 10 at night,” Stringer said. “By the end of the week, I’m usually pretty tired.”

Stringer refreshes himself with short pre-game naps or extra weekend rest. Some researchers say these habits could be linked to better athletic performance and fewer injuries.

In his book, Exercise Testing and Prescription: A Health-Related Approach, author David C. Nieman, MD says error rates in athletes increase in direct proportion to the amount of sleep lost. In one study, adolescent athletes who slept at least eight hours each night were 68 percent less likely to be injured than their counterparts who slept less. The more sleep students got, the lower their risk of injury.

For a variety of reasons, sleep—or the lack of it—can affect the body even more than players realize. Irregular sleep habits may prevent the body from releasing a crucial growth hormone that stimulates healing for muscles and bones, according to some researchers.

Science has also shown a link between sleep patterns and elevated hormones that affect muscle mass, according to John Baldea, MD, a sports medicine physician with Indiana University Health Physicians. “Sleep deprivation from activities like shift-work can increase cortisol, which is associated with stress,” he said. “High cortisol levels weaken the body's immune system and can lead to decreased muscle mass, which could hinder athletic performance.”

As a former high-school athlete who still participates in the annual 500 Festival Mini-Marathon, Baldea says his running times are always better when he gets at least seven hours of rest.

While some conditions that hinder rest are unavoidable, Baldea encourages teen athletes to follow these steps for better sleep.

  • Try to fall asleep at the same time each night. 
  • Reserve the bedroom for sleep––not for television, video games and music. 
  • Avoid food and drink for a couple of hours before bedtime, so you don't have the urge to use the restroom. 
  • Make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible. 

If those steps don't help, see your doctor for more recommendations and treatment options.

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