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How Important is Sleep for Athletic Performance?

It’s easy to say sleep is crucial in the restorative process, but sleep seems to be the first thing to suffer with athletes as they struggle with their need to combine training with other duties like studying or working.

How Can Sleep Affect Athletes?
Sleep can impact performance in three main ways:

  1. Lost sleep reduces the performance of the cerebral cortex in the frontal lobe of the brain which is responsible for the most important mental functions in sport: focus, concentration, flexibility, decision making, and information processing.
  2. Very deep or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep helps consolidate activities, tasks and skills undertaken following it. It is indispensable for helping motor learning, skill acquisition, and the performance of those tasks.
  3. Sleep is a significant stimulator of growth hormone release – the body’s natural agent for cell growth and reproduction. In addition to acting to increase muscle mass, growth hormone also stimulates the immune system. Sleep deprivation raises levels of the stress hormone Cortisol which may interfere with tissue repair and growth.

How Much Sleep Do Athletes Need?
Many would say as much as possible! However, we don’t all have that luxury.

An ongoing study suggests that athletes who get an extra amount of sleep are more likely to have better performance, mood, and alertness.

According to Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory

Typically, many athletes accumulate a large sleep debt by not obtaining their individual sleep requirement each night, which can have detrimental effects on cognitive function, mood, and reaction time. These negative effects can be minimized or eliminated by prioritizing sleep in general and, more specifically, obtaining extra sleep to reduce one’s sleep debt.

It is interesting to note that many of the athletes in the various sports I have worked with, including the swimmers in this study, have set multiple new personal records and season best times, as well as broken long-standing Stanford and American records while participating in this study.

The findings led Mah to recommend that athletes make sleep a part of the training program, aiming for 8+ hours most of the time. Also, athletes should extend nightly sleep for several weeks before competition to reduce sleep debt.

7 Tips to Improve the Quality of Your Sleep:

  1. Have a regular wake-up and bed time each day. Your internal body clock adjusts to set itself around this regular patterning. The body loves consistency, so it’s best to follow this pattern through weekends too, so as to reduce disruption to your body clock.
  2. Avoid coffee or other caffeinated drinks, alcohol, and other stimulants prior to heading to bed. Reduce stimulant intake for at least 5 hours before going to bed.
  3. Avoid high intensity exercise and large meals after for 2 1/2 hours before going to bed.
  4. Spend “quiet time” before bed. Limit your exposure to loud music, bright lights, computers, and school or work related stress just before bed. The aim here is to reduce stressors and stimulators to allow the mind time to wind down. Just as we do with small children, you might want to create a bed time ritual to put your mind in a state of sleepiness.
  5. Your sleep environment is important so aim for a quiet, dark bedroom with a cool temperature. Get the best quality linen, mattress, and pillow possible. Consider taking your own linen and pillow when traveling.
  6. Some say that if you are not asleep in 30 minutes then get out of bed, read, or undertake another quiet activity then return to bed when you are drowsy. Try that and see if it works; otherwise, just lay there quietly and relax – you can’t force sleep but if you’re relaxed and peaceful you’ll rest nicely and likely fall asleep.
  7. Do not nap within 1-3 hours of bed time. If you do nap during the day aim for 20-40 minutes around lunch time.
Andrew Verdon has worked extensively in sports conditioning, injury rehabilitation and prevention, and athlete preparation. He has served as the Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for the Australian Sailing Team including the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams, and he currently runs a fitness training studio in Sydney, Australia.
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3 comments

  1. Great tips! Sleep is so important to everyone!

  2. Great article … thank you. Kids are multi-tasking in so many ways that a good night sleep is really something of the past. I’ve seen the effects of a late on my players, which obviously has an effect on the score of the soccer match 🙂

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