Sleep is a dynamic process. The average healthy adult will experience 3-5 cycles of sleep in a night. Within those cycles, there are 4 distinct stages: Wake, Rapid Eye Movement (REM), Light, and Deep Sleep.
Light sleep represents the physiological process taken to transition to deep sleep. Some of the restorative characteristics that define deep sleep occur in this phase, but with less frequency, as your body is more responsive to your environment in light sleep. In fact, there is a theory that light sleep exists to allow the body to be aware of its surroundings and to wake quickly in the event of a threat.
REM sleep is when the brain is restored. It is at this time that ideas and skills acquired during the day are cemented as memories. As it relates to an athlete, any time you are practicing a technical skill, the actual consolidation and retention of that learning happens during REM sleep.
Deep sleep, also known as Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), is believed to be the time when your muscles repair and grow. During this stage the body produces 95% of its daily supply of growth hormones. As an athlete, training sessions break down muscle tissue so that it can rebuild and grow during slow wave sleep.
Wake is included as a sleep stage because it is natural to be awake for brief periods many times in the night. These periods are known as arousals, or disturbances and it is normal to experience anywhere from 10-20 per night. These arousals only last a few minutes and you're not conscious of them, but they matter because you can lose upwards of an hour of sleep in the Wake stage.
Sleep is entered through Light sleep, transitions to SWS within about 10 minutes, then to REM sleep somewhere around 90 minutes after falling asleep. An arousal will follow and a new sleep cycle will begin from there. As mentioned above, a normal night of sleep will contain 3-5 complete cycles, with more possible the longer you sleep.
The amount of time a person will spend in each sleep stage varies night by night. In general, a healthy break down to aim for is the following:
The sleep trend view below gives an athlete the opportunity to unpack nighttime habits that either help or hurt their sleep efficiency.
When looking at the 2-week average breakdown below, we see plenty of time in bed. However, the ratio of time spent in REM and SWS shows where this athlete is coming up short.
For REM, the athlete is getting 1 hour and 16 minutes on average per night. This is 13% of the total time in bed, glaringly low in comparison to the goal of roughly 22% each night. To assess a root cause, the athlete might look at the night statistics from Feb 3, 4, 5, and 11 (pictured in the bar graph above). For this athlete, a night time (party) event preceding each low REM sleep seems to be the common thread.
For SWS, this athlete is getting 1 hour and 43 minutes a night. Measured against the average total time in bed, this means that 18% of the athlete's sleep is spent in the SWS stage. This is a healthy ratio, but if the athlete hopes to investigate behaviors that could contribute to this trend it would be appropriate to select Jan 31, Feb 9, and Feb 10 to see if anything stands out. Here, it appears that the athlete got less than his or her average total amount of sleep on those nights and, on 2 of the 3 occasions, the sleep was following a very high strain day.
The key is looking for patterns like this can help you build routines that maximize your recovery.
While there is no simple formula for boosting the amount of time you spend in each sleep stage, there are behaviors you can adopt to give yourself the best chance at an efficient night of sleep. Here are some good practices we've learned from the leading studies on sleep science:
When you are looking for the edge on performance (whether sports, academics, or business) sleep and now the quality of sleep is being examined more seriously. Find your favorite app and start looking for trends!!
Let me know if I can help. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Physical Therapist, Athletic Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist