Sleep is not just about spending time in bed under the covers. Sleep restores the body, and the mind too. Without enough sleep, athletes can’t function at their best. It’s as critical as eating well or exercising for a healthy body, yet sleep doesn’t often get the importance that it deserves in our understanding of performance.
It’s often thought that we can cut sleep short. If there’s a big school assignment, a late night practice, or even just a restless evening, sleep is the first thing to go for many of us. We can do without that extra hour right? Especially in the age of electronics, sleep can get cut short in favor of a myriad of things.
For athletes, this is a big factor. Top performers know how much sleep they need, and they make sure to balance it. Whether you are aiming for the Olympics or simply want to be your best fencing in the club, sleep is a key ingredient.
What good sleep means to fencers
Good sleep is game changing for fencers. Athletes can use sleep to improve performance, both in the everyday kind of way and in the pre-competition kind of way. Here are some amazing facts about what sleep does to the brain and body.
- Increases strength and muscle power
- Faster muscle repair for strength training
- Improved mood regulation
- Better immune system function
- Improved metabolism
- Faster reaction time
- Lower stress
- Increased attention
- Improved quick decision making by 4.3%
- Sleep deprivation is linked to higher rates of sports injuries
These are just a few of the important reasons for fencers to make sure that they’re getting enough shut eye! What’s so striking here is that this is not just about the body, it’s also about how the mind works. We all know that fencing is a sport that is just as much about the mental aspect of the game as it is about the physical aspect, making sleep a wonderful target for us to exploit in order to improve our performance.
Strength, mental agility, and improved reaction times are powerful reasons for fencers to take a look at this aspect of their health. We want to perform our best, and not only that but to train our best so that we can be prepared to perform. In order to do both of those things, the right kind of sleep is essential. This is an area that we sometimes forget about because it can seem unrelated. It’s not! Sleep for fencers needs to be a priority.
Sleep needs change over time
When kids are young, it’s often a battle to get them to go to sleep. We read them books and sing them lullabies, all in the hopes that they’ll drift off in time for mom and dad to have a quiet house. Early mornings are a hallmark of young kids.
As kids get older, they cross from bounding out of bed at five in the morning to sometimes needing to be dragged out of bed just barely in time to get to school on time. That’s not because they’re getting lazier – it’s because sleep needs change over time. Teenagers have a need to stay up later at night and sleep later during the day compared to younger kids.
When we understand that sleep patterns change over time, we can adapt. A Y10 fencer will need a couple of more hours per night than a Cadet, and the Cadet will need those hours at a later time. Veterans tend to get less sleep, depending on their age and what their life looks like. Insomnia is a real problem for many adults. The younger you are, the deeper your sleep as well. It’s that deep sleep that fuels repair of the body.
One thing that we want to be clear on is that both adult and child fencers probably need more sleep than they’re getting. A few years ago there was a sleep chart that ran across social media that showed bedtimes and wake times for kids, and it caused a lot of parents to wonder if their kids were getting what they need. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following for school aged kids to adults.
- Ages six to thirteen: 9-11 hours per night
- Ages fourteen to seventeen: 8-10 hours per night
- Adults: 7-9 hours per night
This can be hard to imagine! Eleven hours of sleep would equate to going to bed at eight and waking up at seven. For a ten year old, that feels like a lot. Even for a fifteen year old, going to bed at nine and waking up at seven can seem like more than normal. Adults tend to try to go for less, and we need to understand that this can all affect performance in fencing. Knowing a rough estimate of where to aim is helpful.
The point to remember here is that sleep is not static over time, not even for adults. The trick is to finding the right kind of high quality sleep in the right amount for you. Individuals aren’t the same either! Two fencers of the same age could need two different amounts of sleep. There is not one size fits all for this!
A thing to remember too is that sleeping well the night before a competition is so important. This is a place where sleep needs change as well, as there is a need for a sleep boost to boost performance. It is not easy at times with all of the excitement about the big day, but that’s why we’ve given you lots of techniques below.
Ten tactics for improving sleep
Now that you know how important sleep is and how much you need to be getting, it’s time to dig in and find out how fencers can get there.
First, let’s touch on bad sleep. Bad sleep includes problems like:
- Sleepiness during the day
- Muscle fatigue
- Inability to focus
- Waking up in the night
- Struggling to fall asleep
Both adults and children can face these kinds of problems, and they can also bother athletes of all ability levels. Just as we mentioned that sleep naturally changes with time, sleep problems can change with time.
How you structure your life to get good sleep is called sleep hygiene. That means structuring your time and your environment to make the most of your sleep time. Making your own set of sleep routines that work for your needs are what it’s all about, as well as adapting to changes in your sleep needs. It’s all individual, which is something to remember especially with children. Because one young fencer has one kind of sleep hygiene that works beautifully does not mean that will work for their sibling or their teammate.
When developing sleep hygiene for yourself or your young fencer, there are some things that you can do. Try some of them or all of them!
- Make sleep a priority. This is not the place to steal extra time. Fencers, especially competitive fencers, tend to be interested in achievement. Often they push hard and want to do a lot of things at school as well as with fencing. Sacrificing sleep can seem like a way to squeeze more hours into the day, but it’s a bad deal. Sleep must be as important as hydration, nutrition, exercise, or training.
- Track your sleep. You can do this with an app, or manually with your fencing journal. Even knowing how much sleep you’re getting changes a lot of things.
- Set sleep goals. Once you know what you need to do, set sleep goals just as you would fencing goals. You will get into a rhythm after a while naturally, but you want it to be a conscious one.
- Be consistent with your sleep schedule. This is for everyone, regardless of age. Sleeping late on the weekends by more than an hour disrupts the cycle and will make it harder to stay on track. Go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time. It’s as simple as that!
- Nap wisely. Short naps, a half hour to an hour long, are directly related to improved performance. If a fencer is feeling fatigued before training and has the time, a nap can make all the difference. This goes for competition too. A well placed nap on a competition day (as long as you wake up on time and don’t miss anything) can give a huge boost. All of those benefits listed above can come with naps!
- Turn off the screens. Artificial light from screens makes our brains wake up rather than wind down. Turning off screens in the last hour before bed will lead to better sleep! That’s tough, but it’s a change that is well worth it.
- Exercise for better sleep. The exercise component is a big part of improving sleep. Physical activity is linked directly to better quality sleep! During the fencing season when competitions and training are going on, fencers are naturally getting lots of exercise. In the off season, adding in cross training is helpful. This is a wonderful place to incorporate your coach into the process and to kill two birds with one stone. You’ll get all of the benefits of cross training for your fencing, as well as the huge added bonus of better sleep that will also improve your fencing.
- Use sound to get to sleep. Though we want to eschew screens as we’re trying to sleep, sound can be a boost. It might be a guided sleep meditation, music, an audiobook, whatever works for you. White noise is another option. This is a great technique for when you’re making adjustments to your sleep schedule too.
- Cool and dark. Cooler temperatures and darkness are both related to better sleep. There’s a reason we love cuddling under the blankets! Try turning down the thermostat to improve sleep. A dark room is of course important as well, because even a sliver of light tells the brain that it’s time to wake up.
- Structure competition schedules. When competing for fencers, build in time not only for the necessary sleep hours, but also for the wind down and settle in time. Arriving in the afternoon rather than the evening on the day before a competition lets fencers settle in and settle down in time for bed. If you’re driving in on the day of competition, try to avoid mornings that are too early if possible. If those options are not possible for whatever reason, then prioritize sleep with naps.
We know what our bodies need for optimal performance in fencing. Who gets that final touch in a match can come down to a few split seconds, and the edge needed to make that touch could well go to the athlete who has the best sleep.
It’s not just about competition though. We want our fencers to be healthy all around. Improving sleep is good for all of us!
[Image Credit: Srinrat Wuttichaikitcharoen / EyeEm / Getty Images]