Sleep and Athletic Performance
23rd July 2019
When researchers asked elite athletes about the best recovery modalities, they all rated sleep among the top three most important practices for athletic performance, regardless of gender, age, or sport.
The need for sleep is one of the single things that connects all humans. For athletes, it restores our bodies, allowing for critical physical repair. But even further, sleep is the magical tool to enhancing athletic performance. And we can all access it.
But before we get into how sleep affects athletic performance, let’s talk about how we define “performance”.
Keys to Athletic Performance
It’s pretty clear that performing as a weight lifter requires different adaptations than a swimmer, or that a marathon runner has a different definition of performance than a basketball player. However, as mentioned previously, the importance of sleep permeates all codes of sport. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to break down athletic performance into four major areas, as defined by the World of Sport Science:
1. Neuromuscular factors
2. Psychological Factors
3. Environmental Factors
4. External Support and Coaching
The last two are somewhat out of your control as an athlete. You can’t control the weather or the ref, and you have limited choices on coaching. While we hope the environment works with us on game day, a good sports medicine team is set up to help you maximize your neuromuscular and psychological factors.
According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, those include physical therapy, nutrition, psychology, strength and conditioning, and more. Central to maximizing all of the above lies one trick – a good night’s sleep. And luckily for you, that’s one thing you can control.
How sleep affects athletic performance
Sleep is the world’s most natural performance-enhancing drug. Without it, we’re sluggish and slowed down. But with it, athletes have a secret weapon to beat their opponent.
First of all, it’s no secret that a night without sleep makes us feel drowsy and in a bad mood. Science backs this up, showing that all forms of sleep deprivation lead to negative affect, confusion, and a decrease in vigor. Another study showed heavy drops in visual attention, spatial relations, and working memory with lack of sleep.
As psychological factors make up 25% of your performance, wouldn’t you want to preserve that? I’m pretty sure someone performing at 100% will beat someone at 75% any day.
But it’s not just psychological factors. According to the European Journal of Applied Physiology, anaerobic power significantly decreased in healthy males after 36 hours without sleep. In another study, acute sleep loss resulted in an 11% decrease in time to exhaustion during aerobic exercise. Finally, alterations in the sleep/wake cycle, such as with long distance travel, suppress the immune system and can make athletes sick.
Clearly, being sleep deprived negatively affects performance. But even if you feel like you’re getting enough sleep, it’s possible even more could still increase performance.
A study out of Stanford tested basketball players after 5-7 weeks of increasing their sleep to 10 hours per night. The results? Shooting accuracy improved by 9% across the whole study, while sprint times dropped by an average of one-tenth of a second. Not only that, but all players subjectively reported better mental and physical well-being during training and games.
How to maximise sleep
Sleep and training go hand in hand. The harder you train, the more tired you are. Up to a point, this can be a good thing. But without proper recovery and program design, too much stress can occur. Ironically, trouble sleeping can be a symptom of overtraining, as your heart is working overtime to protect your muscles, nerves, and immune system. Sprinkle in a little bad mood and anxiety, and sleep can be a big issue. That’s why one of the best ways to maximize sleep is to not only train hard, but recover harder.
Train hard, recover harder
General aerobic exercise has been shown to counteract insomnia. Moreover, lots of research shows that weight lifting lowers stress levels and resting heart rate, allowing for better sleep. Great news for athlete’s, right?
Well, yes, in theory. But in practice, many athletes suffer from sleep problems. Why?
While each individual case varies, sleep disturbance in athletes tends to come from one of three factors:
2. Poor nutrition and lifestyle choices
Your body has two different central nervous systems settings – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system releases energy and adrenaline, elevates heart rate, and increases arousal and focus. Your parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, signals rest and relaxation, which is critical to sleep.
During training and competition, your body is locked in to that sympathetic nervous system. It’s necessary for high performance – you need the extra blood flow and attention to react quickly to stimuli and win the game. However, overtraining, poor lifestyle choices, and too much travel can keep you in that state, limiting your ability to calm down.
So yeah, your cool down and active recovery sessions actually matter. Below are a few more ways to get your body to calm down, shut off, and enter the sweet dreamy land of sleep.
Curate a sleep environment
You’ve likely already heard this advice – turn off your computer, put your phone away, and shut down the TV at least an hour before bed. Those devices emit blue light, the same wavelength of the morning sun. It really messes with your circadian rhythm if your environment is always saying it’s time to wake up.
More than just electronics, you can curate an ideal sleep environment by controlling the temperature and quieting down noise. Research shows that sleeping in cooler environments, lends to longer, higher-quality sleep. If you live with a roommate or in a noisy neighborhood, try earplugs. They’re magical items for putting you to sleep.
Eat to win (and sleep)
Did you know the way you eat can affect sleep quality? Inflammatory foods, such as trans fats, fried foods, alcohol, and sugars send your body into stress mode. This, in turn, prevents that ever-so-important switch in to the parasympathetic state. By eating poorly, you raise cortisol levels as your body tries to process all of that junk. In general, athletes should focus on clean eating with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and good fats.
But even more, some dietary interventions can actually promote sleep.
For example, getting in protein before bed provides critical amino acids to stimulate recovery. While you’re getting your eight hours, the proteins donate their nutrients to rebuild muscle and fortifying the immune system.
Eating tart Montmorency cherries raises melatonin levels. When you naturally start to fall asleep, it’s largely thanks to the hormone melatonin. The rise and fall of melatonin corresponds with your sleep/wake cycle, regulating your natural circadian rhythm.
Adding magnesium to your dinner plate can help as well. Research has shown correlations between sleep quality and dietary magnesium. Moreover, magnesium is an important electrolyte, which helps athletes stay hydrated and prime performance. Bananas, almonds, and whole wheat are great sources of magnesium.
Unfortunately, in the research about these dietary interventions, scientists use a pretty high dose. That’s great, if you really like cherry juice or almonds. But if not, you may want to try a supplement, such as Performance Lab Sleep. By taking a few pills before bed, you not only get the right amount of tart cherry and magnesium, but you also get tryptophan, an amino acid that triggers the onset of sleep.
If you want to get better at your sport, get better at sleeping. It’s really a no-brainer. By simply increasing your depth and hours of sleep, you will absolutely perform better on the court, in the gym, on the field, or wherever else you compete. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is.
Modern life is doing all it can to keep us awake and doing more, more, more. But in the case of optimizing performance, sometimes less is more. Sure, still train hard. But recover harder. Take your sleep as seriously as you do your practice, and you’ll be well on your way to a championship.
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