The importance of sleep in rugby training

If you want to be a good rugby player, you know you have to pay your dues both in the gym and on the training pitch. You also need to pay attention to what you eat because food is the source of your energy and your health. Supplements can also play a part in your success, enhancing performance and recovery.

But even if you do all these things to your best ability, you may still be inadvertently sabotaging your progress. The reason? Lack of sleep.

Training for and playing rugby take a huge amount out of your body. It depletes your energy resources and causes muscle breakdown. Rest between training sessions allows your body time to restock and repair, but you need more than a couple of hours sat in front of the TV to fully recover from grueling training.

Your body does most of its recovery and repair work while you sleep. In fact, lack of sleep has been shown to impair recovery, degrade mental function, and even result in fat gain – they very opposite of what any successful rugger needs.

Most experts agree that hard-training athletes, such as ruggers, need around eight hours of sleep per night, and not getting enough will interfere with the recovery process. It can also make you mentally sluggish, and reduce your willpower and motivation. Sleep deprivation is even used a as form of torture in some countries. And it’s not just the total amount of sleep that’s important, but the type and quality of sleep too.

Sleep debts cannot be repaid as the damage caused by too little sleep occurs the very night you fail to get your full eight hours.

The stages of sleep

When you sleep, you don’t just shut your eyes and power down for a few hours. Instead, your body goes through a range of mental and physical processes. These processes depend on which stage of sleep you are in.

There are four sleep stages, and, during a normal night’s sleep, you’ll go through each stage several times. Completion of the four stages is called a sleep cycle.

Stage one – this is the transition between being awake and drifting off to sleep. Your eyes feel heavy, and your muscles start to relax. That’s why your head “nods” if you are sat upright. This is the shortest sleep stage, lasting just 1-7 minutes, and has no real effect on muscle recovery. However, during this time, muscle memory is “logged”, and new skills learned during the day are installed in your subconscious.

Stage two – lasting 45% of your sleep cycle, usually in 10 to 25-minute bursts, this is your baseline sleep stage. This stage should be considered “light sleep.” While it is mentally restorative, it’s not deep enough for your body to make the switch to full recovery/repair mode; it’s still a little too busy. You are also easily woken at this time.

This is the stage of sleep you reach during a power-nap. During this time, your body prepares itself for deeper sleep and starts producing human growth hormone (HGH) which is largely responsible for the anabolic processes of muscle growth and repair.

Stage three – during this stage, blood supply to muscles increases, your heart rate and blood pressure decreases, and your energy levels are restored. This sleep stage lasts around 25% of the night, in 20 to 40-minute bursts.

HGH and testosterone (another anabolic hormone) production levels peaks during this time, and your body also produces the anti-inflammatory substance prolactin which helps repair your joints.

Stage four – also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep, this stage makes up around 25% of your sleep, typically in 10 to 60-minute bursts. It usually occurs around 80-90 minutes after first falling asleep. During this time, your muscles become immobile, but your brain is active. This is when you dream. This sleep stage boosts daytime mental performance.

During this stage blood and oxygen flow to your muscles increases, which assists in the breakdown of lactic acid, enhancing recovery. Your body also gets busy repairing minor muscle damage.

Sleep cycles

Each sleep cycle lasts around 90-100 minutes, often punctuated with brief periods of wakefulness. A good night’s sleep, lasting about eight hours, will consist of 4-5 cycles. Not getting enough sleep or waking and breaking the flow of the sleep stages will severely impair recovery and rest. Lack of stage three and four sleep will have an especially big impact on muscle growth and repair.

It’s possible to sleep all night but still wake up feeling tired. This is usually caused by spending your night in sleep stages one and two, and never really making it to stages three and four. A noisy or overly bright bedroom, stressful thoughts, or being too hot or too cold could cause this. If you wake up after a restless night feeling almost as tired as when you went to bed, sleep quality is probably more of a problem than sleep duration.

20-1-20 PROGRAM


Getting enough sleep

Getting enough sleep and making sure that sleep takes you through all four sleep cycles several times per night is not always easy. Life often makes sleep hard to come by. Use these tips to help you get the most from your zzzz.

1. Set a bedtime and stick to it – it’s probably been years since you had a bedtime but having one primes your body for sleep. Going to bed at the same time each night, even at weekends, helps develop healthy sleeping habits. Go to bed around eight hours before you need to wake up, allowing a little extra time for your pre-sleep ritual.

It’s also important to know that you cannot make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping more at the weekends. Sleep debts cannot be repaid as the damage caused by too little sleep occurs the very night you fail to get your full eight hours.

The occasional late night, maybe for a party or other social event, is unavoidable, but that should be the exception rather than the norm. You NEED eight hours of sleep per night, every night if possible.

2. Develop a pre-sleep ritual – like most kickers have a ritual before attempting a conversion, most successful sleepers have a pre-bed ritual. Follow the same ritual every night before trying to sleep e.g. lock your front door, have a warm bath, turn off your phone, go to bed, dim the lights, read for a few minutes, and then fall asleep. The more often you repeat this ritual, the more likely you are to sleep soundly at night. You can learn more here.

3. Get a comfortable bed and pillows – if you are uncomfortable, you’ll never get a good night sleep. Instead, you’ll keep waking up and are less likely to make it to sleep stages three and four – when most recovery occurs. Good beds and pillows are often expensive, but it’s a worthwhile investment.

People are often willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a car, but only a few hundred on their bed. You spend far more time in your bed than your car, so it may be time to reprioritize your spending.

4. Create a sleep sanctuary – your bedroom should be reserved for sleeping and sexual activity. Make sure you remove all other distractions such as TVs, laptop computers, cellphones, and anything else that may stop you from going to sleep or wake you up. All it takes is one alert bleep from your cellphone during sleep stage one or two to wake you up and upset your entire sleep cycle for the night.

Electronic devices are also too stimulating for use immediately before sleep. Newsfeed updates, text conversations, and brightly-lit screens will wake you up your brain at exactly the time you want it to calm down.

5. Consume slow acting carbs and protein before bed – eating an hour or so before bed might fly in the face of a lot of weight loss advice, but:

  1. food consumed before bed won’t automatically turn to fat
  2. will enhance sleep and muscle recovery.

Carbs increase serotonin production, a natural relaxant while the protein ensures your body has all the amino acids it needs to rebuild damaged muscle tissue. Also, hunger is a major sleep barrier and having just a little food in your stomach will prevent the pangs that might otherwise wake you up.

6. Avoid caffeine and alcohol – caffeine is a stimulant that can prevent sleep. As well as being in coffee, tea, and chocolate, you’ll also find caffeine in most pre-workout and fat burning supplements. Avoid consuming anything with caffeine in it for at least 2-3 hours before bedtime, longer of you are especially caffeine sensitive.

Alcohol can make you drowsy but interferes with the natural flow of the sleep cycles. It often leads to light or restless sleep, preventing you from reaching stages three and four. Do not use alcohol as a sleep aid.

A good night’s sleep is vital for rugby success. A lot of people can get by on less than the recommended eight hours of sleep per night, but just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Getting enough sleep often requires a degree of organization and discipline but, in return, your waking hours will be much more productive.


Tim Howard

Tim Howard

Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science who settled in Austin, TX after playing rugby all over the world for the past two decades. He's constantly used as a guinea pig for our most advanced or controversial diet and training experiments.