Three Sleep and Performance Challenges for Northern-Based Athletes and Coaches to Manage
Recently, I had the opportunity to explain on the Fox Weather streaming service why we sometimes feel sleepier in the winter than we do in other seasons. The interview got me thinking about how these same challenges may be faced by college and professional winter sports athletes.
Many athletes and teams are in northern-based cities and towns that experience harsh, cold and long dark nights. The teams and coaches spend most of their scheduled season traveling in these cold, gray weather conditions with limited or reduced sunlight. Occasionally they may play a tournament away in a warm, sunny region, which is a welcome reprieve.
Does the warm sunlight impact them physiologically as well as physically? It is a welcomed reprieve to play in sunny conditions, but a short one for many of these teams. The reality is that their opponents for winter sports, such as basketball or hockey, are mostly other northern-based teams so they often stay within the early, gray, dark and dreary morning environments during the winter seasons.
We all have heard the expression, “You can’t change the weather,” but what should college and professional athletes be aware of, look out for and manage through the winter season? What should coaches and trainers look for that may be a unique challenge brought on by the environment? Have high school players from southern states even given a thought to how well they will adapt and thrive in a frozen and dark environment if they chose a college in that region?
Let’s look at three key areas of concern during the winter season for both college and professional athletes and coaches based in the northern United States.
One of the biggest reasons many athletes may experience more tiredness is the absence of sunlight during the winter months due to nights being longer and days shorter. This leads to more of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to signal that it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep time. This tired feeling may make it harder for an athlete to complete workouts or practice their sport skills, as well as impact their performance in warmer, sunnier regions.
Athletes often play their games late in the day and sleep in, so an early 4:45 or 5 p.m. sunset seriously limits their chances for getting healthy, natural sunlight during the winter, which can negatively inﬂuence focus, workouts, and mood and appetite for the players, coaches and trainers. This daily dose of natural sunlight is important for maintaining a consistent and healthy circadian sleep rhythm. Even as few as 20 minutes of sunlight in the morning can make a big difference for your sleep schedule, mood and energy level.
With more time spent inside due to the cold weather, athletes may experience more difficulty controlling their weight. Winter is a time where we tend to eat heavier meals in the northern climates as opposed to the lighter “summer salad” fare enjoyed in the warmer months or down south in the warmer climates. With cold and ice outside, and less desire or opportunity to exercise, it’s easy to start noticing your belt tightening during the winter seasons. Add to that the holidays, and we definitely can run afoul of our athletic dietary goals and targets.