Athletes: Sleep is the key to improving performance.
Updated: Nov 18
It is widely accepted that nutritional and training are crucial to achieving your best. However, despite providing the foundation of physical and mental health, sleep is often overlooked. Although quality sleep can boost performance, research indicates that athletes tend to have a lower quality of sleep than non-athletes. (Shona L. Halson, 2016) (Scott Kutscher, 2019).
Physical training works by damaging muscle fibres so that they rebuild stronger than before. Sleep plays a vital role in muscle recovery; as your body enters into deep sleep, your pituitary gland releases a shot of growth hormone that stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. The efficacy of one’s training is determined by their ability to recover. Therefore, gains are not actually made in the gym or the track, but in bed.
What about sports that require more than physical endurance? Such as, those that rely on coordination to execute highly precise movements? For example, a gymnast looking to pull off a new vault. In those case, doesn't practice make perfect?
Research shows that sleep is not only vital saving facts to long term memory, but also pivotal in the development of procedural memory; movements or series of actions that you perform without having to think about it (Siengsukon & Boyd, 2009).
Recall the process of learning a new skill, such as driving a car. You had to consider every action consciously.
“Okay, indicate here. 1, 2, 3… slow down with the break, and turn left…”
Yet, over time, these processes became second nature. During sleep, motor-memories are transferred to regions of the brain that operate below the level of consciousness (Walker, 2018). This process enables actions to flow.
When you don’t sleep enough, this interferes with the recovery process, causing the body to function sub-optimally. A review published in 2019 (Vitale, Owens, Hopkins, & Malhortra, 2019) summarised 40 studies with qualitative analysis, concluding that clear sleep deprivation had clear adverse effects on athletes’ performance. These effects included slower reaction time, reduced accuracy, vigour, submaximal strength, and endurance. Furthermore, judgment and decision-making were negatively influenced by sleep deprivation. After being awake for more than 17 hours, reaction time is as impaired or worse than someone who is legally too drunk to drive (Williamson & Feyer, 2000). This means you’re more likely to drop the ball, or be fractions of a second slower off the blocks when the starting pistol fires.
Poor sleep has another indirect way of preventing you from reaching your goals. A chronic lack of sleep has been shown to increase your risk of sports injury. A multivariate analysis of young athletes in 2014 found that those who slept less than 8 hours were 1.7X more likely to suffer an injury than those who slept 8 hours or more (Milewski, et al., 2014). The more time an athlete is injured, the less time can spend training. Moreover, injuries often disrupt an athlete’s routine, making it difficult to re-establish their momentum even after they recover.
Many elite athletes are already taking advantage of the benefits sleep can provide by extending their sleep. Usain Bolt broke the world record just 30 minutes after waking from a nap, while Roger Federer and LeBron James sleep 10-12 hours a day. According to Professor Kenneth Vitale (M.D.), “sleep extension can positively affect reaction times, mood, sprint times, tennis serve accuracy, swim turns, kick stroke efficiency, and increased free throw and 3-point accuracy.”
By making sleep a priority, you too can likely improve your performance. Unless you’re a professional athlete, you may not have the luxury of being able to increase the time you spend in bed to 12 hours. Thankfully there are simple steps to improve the quality of your sleep.
Milewski, M. D., Skaggs, D. L., Bishop, G. A., Pace, J. L., Ibrahim, D. A., Wren, T. A., & Barzdukas, A. (2014). Chronic Lack of Sleep Is Associated With Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, 129-133.
Scott Kutscher, M. (2019, April). Sleep & Elite Athletic Performance. Retrieved from Practical Neurology: https://practicalneurology.com/articles/2019-mar-apr/sleep--elite-athletic-performance
Shona L. Halson, P. (2016). Sleep and Athletes. Sports Science Exchange, 1-4.
Siengsukon, C., & Boyd, L. A. (2009). Sleep Enhances Off-line Spatial and Temporal Motor Learning After Stroke. Neurorehabil Neural Repair.
Vitale, K. C., Owens, R., Hopkins, S. R., & Malhortra, A. (2019). Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int. J. Sports Med, 535-543.
Walker, M. (2018). Why We Sleep. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Williamson, A. M., & Feyer, A.-M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57(10), 649-655.