Sleep is linked to everything we do. From our physical development to our cognitive reactions, focusing on how to keep a consistent sleep schedule allows us to maintain optimal health. It’s no surprise then that sleep also affects athletic performance. Research shows that it’s an essential part of recovery and may reduce the risk of illness and injury in athletes. While it affects people physically, sleep deprivation can be a mental drain as well.
With the extra stress caused by training and competition, travel schedules and environmental pressures, maintaining healthy sleep habits is a crucial part of an athlete’s routine. Without proper sleep, athletic performance levels dwindle due to reduced energy levels, slower reaction times, and mental fatigue.
Sleep and sports performance are intertwined since lack of sleep results in low energy. This reduces the amount of effort given for high-intensity workouts and can be discouraging if you want to maintain a regular exercise regimen. In fact, medical observations suggest that sleep deprivation impacts endurance sports the most.
According to Dr. Ralph Downey III, Ph.D., from the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center, even small amounts of missed sleep can decrease the motivation and stamina that athletes, such as runners and cyclists, need to push through. He notes that over time, the small losses affect performance and eventually add up, whether it’s a slower race time or a lower free throw percentage.
Poor sleep makes you feel groggy and less focused. As a result, reaction times are slower. This is particularly important in sports like basketball or football where mere seconds make a difference. A study involving 11 student-athletes from the men's varsity basketball team at Stanford University showed that extended sleep benefited their athletic performance, evidenced by reaction time, fatigue levels, and boosts in mood.
The average total sleep extension per night was 111 minutes longer than the baseline and specific measures of athletic performance were recorded after every practice. Athletes in the study improved in speed (16.2 seconds reduced to 15.5 seconds during 282-foot sprints), shooting accuracy (9% increase on free throws and three-point field goal percentages), and a reported overall feeling of improved physical and mental well-being.
Athletes across all sports often say how much of their game is a mental one. Without the focus that comes with a well-rested mind, it’s easy to become distracted, feel off balance, or forget crucial plays or moves. In a study tracking MLB players published via the SLEEP journal, data showed that sleepiness was consistently linked to declining strike-zone judgment throughout the season, despite the idea that frequent practice should improve discipline over time.
Dr. Scott Kutscher, MD, theorized this was a result of mental fatigue caused by travel frequency and insufficiency of days off. He noted that teams that focus on mental fatigue management may gain a competitive edge, particularly in the mid and late season. Regardless of physical output, a decline in mental strength has a significant impact on athletic performance. Consistent, quality sleep affects alertness and attitude, which, in this study, demonstrates a stronger hold than repetition.
Adequate amounts of sleep help to boost the immune system. Otherwise, a common cold can last longer than a few days or be amplified without proper rest. Sleep has been a recommended prescription for years when people are sick; the old adage being: drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. Since both dehydration and lack of sleep often prolong illness, it’s one of the easiest remedies to keep the immune system healthy.
After you’ve been sick, it often takes a day or two to get back to your regular workout, which hinders athletic performance since you’re not able to reach your usual maximum levels. Part of the training process involves getting plenty of deep sleep.
In addition to affecting the immune system, the link between sleep and athletic performance also minimizes workout recovery time. Sleep is essential for restorative health. Without it, you may feel more susceptible to pain and not bounce back from soreness or injury as quickly. As an athlete or anyone who maintains a regular exercise routine, it’s important to stay consistent.
Getting a consistent seven to eight hours of sleep per night is the general recommendation for healthy sleep hygiene. However, certain sleep and athletic performance studies suggest that athletes may require closer to nine or 10 hours of sleep per night to accommodate enough recovery time and adaptation between exercise. And just as important as the amount of sleep, is the quality of sleep. Knowing your optimal sleeping temperature will help determine that quality.
The regularity and quality of sleep is extra important for athletes who are constantly traveling and used to early morning wake-up times to train. Traveling between different time zones causes fatigue and, when combined with working out multiple times a day, it can be taxing on the body. Add to that a lack of sleep at night and that’s when athletic performance starts to decline.
To determine your optimal level of sleep, track your sleep patterns and strive to make them as consistent as possible. For example, if you wake up every morning at 5 AM to work out, it’s best to go to bed before 10 PM to allow your body enough time to go through all phases of the sleep cycle. Finding the optimal amount of sleep is based on every person’s needs and can be adjusted to meet specific performance goals.
Making a conscious effort to improve or maintain your sleep habits is as important as following a balanced diet and regular workout schedule, especially for an athlete. Investing in a bed like the Eight Sleep Pod that helps track your sleeping patterns can also be beneficial to your health. It takes time and discipline to achieve this as part of a lifestyle rather than a one-time attempt. The first thing to do is to implement a regular sleeping schedule where you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. As it becomes more of a habit, your body will naturally start to get tired and feel ready to wake up at your preset times.
The second way to maintain healthy sleep habits is to design your bedroom to promote good sleep. This includes eliminating excess light, lowering the temperature, and removing distractions from where you sleep. Some people prefer to have the bedroom completely dark, while others want the option of blinds that allow sunrise to peek through in the morning.
Preferences also vary when finding the ideal temperature. While it’s more comfortable to sleep in cooler rooms, some people need more warmth before they can fall asleep. Athletes and anyone who exercises regularly must give the body enough time to cool down before being able to experience a good night’s sleep. When scheduling evening workouts, aim to complete several hours before bedtime to prevent the body from being too warm or alert.
Lastly, if you’ve made it a habit to go to bed while watching TV or scrolling through your phone, this often leads to less quality sleep since your mind stays active even after you’ve shut off the electronics.
Another habit that’s beneficial to your sleep is regulating your naps. A short 15- to 20-minute nap can be the boost of energy you need to power through the day. Taken too late, though, it can hinder your regular sleep cycle. Plan a nap for the early afternoon if you’re facing a long day or need a break.
If you don’t have a time or place to take a nap, stand up and stretch or take a quick walk. Sedentary lifestyles are common among a majority of people sitting for hours at a time either at work or when relaxing at home. This lack of activity actually makes us feel more fatigued and throws off our body’s natural rhythm. Also, limit your reliance on caffeine or energy drinks to keep you awake or bolster your sports performance. This can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep, especially if consumed late in the day, which leads to sleep deprivation.
When you feel like your energy levels are off or your stress levels have started to increase, it can usually be traced back to how much sleep you’re getting. In order to improve your physical and mental state, rest comes first. Without the proper recovery time, it’s easy to get burnt out more quickly and reduce the amount of focus and drive necessary to continue. It’s all about finding the right balance and adjusting to what we need to feel our best. It’s also important to determine what a normal sleeping pattern is for you.
It’s normal to track how much weight we can lift and how fast we can run. To improve athletic performance, it should also become routine to track how much you’re sleeping per night and measure the quality of each sleep. Thanks to smart technology, the Pod provides a personalized sleep analysis that pinpoints areas where you can improve your sleep.
Since each person maintains their own habits and experiences different disruptions that affect sleep at various points throughout life, there’s no singular sleep schedule that works well for everyone. Monitor the changes you see on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis and you’ll start to notice how much better you’re able to perform when you’re sleeping well consistently.
Sources: https://www.sleep.org/articles/how-sleep-affects-athletes/:https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2017/11000/Sleep_and_Athletic_Performance.11.aspx; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29135639; https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-even-a-little-sleep-loss-hinders-your-athletic-performance/; https://aasm.org/extended-sleep-improves-the-athletic-performance-of-collegiate-basketball-players/; https://aasm.org/studies-link-fatigue-and-sleep-to-mlb-performance-and-career-longevity/;