The Importance of Sleep: A Prescription for Athletes

Learn how ADVENT athelete-turned-Physician Assistant, Kristen Dudas, was able to improve her performance with a prescription for sleep.
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Reviewed by
Published on
October 3, 2019
Updated on
October 4, 2019

Athletes are determined to gain a competitive edge. In this interview with ADVENT athlete and Physician Assistant, Kristen Dudas, you'll learn what motivates her, the secret to her coach's training plan and what a lack of sleep can do to your performance.

Kristen Dudas

How did you become the endurance athlete you are today?

Kristen Dudas: Triathlon is a prevailing part of my life. I trace my love for endurance sports to my childhood. I’ve had a lifelong passion for running, and competed throughout the Midwest since I was a young child. This transcended to running track and cross-country at The University of Notre Dame. During my late teens/early 20’s, I began triathlons and marathons. At age 17, I set a goal to do an IRONMAN by age 40. I’ve completed in multiple marathons and triathlons, and though, later than I initially dreamed, I completed my first IRONMAN in Madison, Wisconsin on September 9, 2018 at the age of 43...although it was the 40th anniversary of IRONMAN (so, the #40 aligned in one way!).

What aspects of triathlons and endurance training motivates you?

KD: My body, mind and spirit feel most alive when I am training and competing in triathlons. There is no doubt I’m addicted to the feeling of euphoria, sensed most profoundly for me in the elements of nature and accomplishment. The synchronization of movement and breath is a powerful personal recharging mechanism. I thrive on the challenge of personal records (PRs). Being part of a supportive team, like Extreme Endurance Team, keeps me from becoming complacent and brings an exhilarating connection for me. I’m thankful for the friendships I have through EET.

In what ways do you prepare for triathlon?

KD: Preparing for a triathlon takes time, body, mind, gear, planning, and..yes, there is a financial cost. Physical training entails several hours per week of swimming, biking, and running. In preparation for IRONMAN Wisconsin, I followed a training plan designed by my coach, Jill Sommers, which added strength training, stretching, and yoga. I incorporate body work (massage, acupuncture, dry needling) to avoid or treat injury and assist recovery. A significant piece to my training is mental preparation, which consists of visualization, relaxation techniques, music and mental playlists, inspirational videos, journaling, and race reports. I hone my nutrition.

Tell us more about Jill Sommers' training plan for you.

KD: During my IRONMAN training, Jill sent weekly training plans preceding my training week. The week was formatted into blocks of swim, bike, run, stretch, strength. Each weekend, I’d map out the training blocks into my calendar for the week to come. She also highlighted a special focus for the week, and often decorated the plan with inspirational images or mantras. She’d include reminders to schedule appointments for bodywork (massage, etc).

The week preceding competitions (the first being Madison Half-IRONMAN), I noticed a new category in my training plans….SLEEP! Every day of this category was filled with “sleep 8.5 or more hours this night!”. I had a basic intuition that rest/sleep was important, but receiving this prescription for sleep on a training plan launched a new level of curiosity, investigation, praise and belief into sound slumber. I dedicated so much to the other elements of training (the physically demanding workouts), but had overlooked the single most important factor to my training- the rebuilding and strengthening that takes place during sleep.

How has that regimen of sleep worked for you, and how has sleep impacted your performance overall?

KD: I’m thankful for the awakening I had during my IRONMAN training of the importance of quality sleep. IRONMAN was a 25+ year goal since my teenage years, and was filled with much emotion for me. That race was a priority for me, resulting in positive behavioral changes and discipline I otherwise struggle with daily. I learned that I can change my behavior to positively impact my health and longevity, as long as I have the motivation and reason to do so.

Sleep is complex. Who doesn’t want to collapse in exhaustion and find more shut-eye each night? The demands of motherhood, work, training, societal pressures, and life absolutely test my limits, and can easily strip away hours of slumber, sadly, thereby, years of life. Poor sleep only brings misfortune and depletes me. Now, with a greater understanding of why we sleep, I aim to achieve the sleep that is essential to meet daily demands of life, instead of the demands depleting my sleep. Ha!.. what a reverse of thought. Certainly, this is a personal work in progress... but achieving sufficient sleep has made its way to my bucket list- for my training, well-being, my body and brain, my longevity, my health, and my kids.

Kristen Dudas

From a Physician Assistant's perspective, in what ways does sleep negatively affect a person?

KD: Sleep is relevant to the health of our body and brain. The functions of the body and brain are enhanced with enough sleep and impaired by insufficient sleep. The CDC has declared the sleep deficit as a public health crisis.

Matthew Walker states in his book, Why We Sleep:

"Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious."

We can get this with SLEEP!

Additionally, sleep is critical for:

  • Psychological health
  • Neurological health
  • Learning
  • Memory consolidation
  • Prevent infection
  • Fight cancer
  • Control body weight
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Metabolic function
  • Appetite regulation
  • Temperature regulation
  • Steady hormone levels
  • Recovery (body repairs itself)
  • Restore, replace, rebuild what’s been
    depleted during the day; grow muscle
    and repair tissue

Insufficient sleep leads to increase of:

  • Chronic illness
  • Diabetes
  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke
  • Mental disorders
  • Cancer
  • Immune deficiency
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Suicide
  • Chronic pain
  • Poor learning skills
  • Behavioral problems
  • ADHD
  • Infertility
  • Weight gain
  • Affects structure of DNA
  • MVA/deaths from sleepy drivers
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Elevated heart rate

And, from an athlete's perspective, in what ways does a lack of sleep negatively affect performance?

KD: It hinders recovery, increases the risk of injury and illness. It leads to decreased energy, poor concentration, slow reaction time, decreased coordination. Insufficient sleep can cause an increase in cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which has a cascade of negative effects. Insufficient sleep can weaken the immune system.

As a result of insufficient sleep, training suffers, recovery suffers, and athletes find themselves forgoing competitions. I’ve been here, and it’s frustrating, depressing, discouraging, and expensive.

Sleep is essential to enhance peak athletic performance. Surprisingly, sleep is an active period, when the body and brain are processing, restoring, strengthening and rebuilding what has been depleted during the day. For endurance athletes, these demands are high. This period of rejuvenation through sleep leads to improved speed, accuracy and reaction time, and ultimately peak performance!

What advice do you have for athletes who may be struggling with fatigue or feel that a lack of sleep might be affecting their athletic performance?

Kristen Dudas

KD: If you suffer from insufficient sleep, struggle with fatigue, or feel that poor sleep is contributing to a lack of endurance, I recommend doing a sleep study to evaluate for snoring, sleep disordered breathing OR obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). At ADVENT, we offer at home sleep studies and address nasal obstruction to maximize nasal airway breathing through simple, in-office procedures.

Matthew Walker also offers '12 Tips for Healthy Sleep':

  1. Stick to a sleep schedule.
  2. Exercise is great, but not too late in the day.
  3. Avoid caffeine and nicotine.
  4. Avoid alcoholic drinks before going to bed.
  5. Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
  6. If possible, avoid medications that delay or disrupt your sleep.
  7. Don’t take naps after 3pm.
  8. Relax before bed.
  9. Take a hot bath before bed.
  10. Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, gadget-free bedroom.
  11. Have the right sunlight exposure.
  12. Don’t lie in bed awake.

From my experience, athletes are always seeking that competitive edge. While we all approach our training differently, the most important thing you can do is sleep.

First published by ADVENT on
October 3, 2019
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The Importance of Sleep: A Prescription for Athletes