JOHN DOHERTY: Sleep as safety not to be ignored

2012-11-12T22:00:00Z JOHN DOHERTY: Sleep as safety not to be ignoredJohn Doherty Times Columnist
November 12, 2012 10:00 pm  • 

Strength training is crucial for preventing injuries but, for the student trying to balance school and sports, finding the time for that in-season is difficult.

Proper nutrition is every bit as important but all too often, for that same student-athlete, the easy choice is fast food or skipping a meal.

There are parents, coaches and plenty of dietary and conditioning experts who can mitigate those problems.

There is one other key to preventing injuries, though, with which no expert can help and requires more time from an athlete than any other performance enhancement strategy – sleep. Nobody will argue that eight hours of sleep every night is crucial for maintaining the immune system. It also helps optimize one's growth potential.

However, knowing that doesn't seem to be enough to convince students, overwhelmed sometimes by academic demands, to get adequate rest.

Perhaps however, a new study – released last month at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual membership meeting in New Orleans – will.

Researchers at Children's Hospital Los Angeles found that middle school and high school athletes who regularly slept eight or more hours per night had 68 percent fewer injuries than those who routinely slept less than eight hours.

The scientists also looked at other factors such as age, gender, weeks of participating in sports per year, hours of participation per week, number of sports, strength training, private coaching and enjoyment. The only of those factors to be significantly related to an increased injury rate was age. The older the athlete, the more likely he was to be injured. However, age was not nearly as predictive as lack of sleep.

"While other studies have shown that lack of sleep can affect cognitive skills and fine motor skills, nobody has really looked at this subject in terms of the adolescent athletic population," said study lead author Matthew Milewski, MD in an AAP press release.

"When we started this study, we thought the amount of sports played, year-round play, and increased specialization in sports would be much more important for injury risk," said Dr. Milewski. Instead, "what we found is that the two most important facts were hours of sleep and (age)."

The results make sense. We have known for years that fatigue plays a role in athletic injuries because a disproportionate share of them occur in the final quarter of games. Athletes are bound to be tired by then, especially in close contests. It makes no sense therefore to start a game or practice already fatigued.

The fact that more injuries occur later in games also ties in well with age and fatigue being risk factors. As athletes age and advance in level of play, the games one plays take longer with more minutes on the clock per period or half. At lower levels, the emphasis is as much on participation as it is on winning. Consequently, starters are replaced and afforded more opportunities to rest more frequently.

There may be a lesson there for coaches regarding the value of more liberal substitution. However, there is no debating the lesson for athletes: get your sleep.

John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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