The Importance of Sleep for Athletes

10th March 2020

Athletes and coaches are becoming more aware of the fact that sleep deprivation can hinder athletic performance. When asked about the causes of fatigue and tiredness, they both ranked sleep as the most prominent problem.

A lack of quality sleep has been shown to influence:

○ Learning

○ Memory

○ Cognition

○ Pain perception

○ Immunity

○ Inflammation

○ Carbohydrate metabolism

○ Appetite

○ Food intake

○ Protein synthesis

Slow-wave sleep (SWS) or deep sleep as it’s more commonly known, is vital for optimum recovery in athletes. During SWS, a growth hormone is released, and studies have shown that longer SWS periods are proportional to wakefulness during the day. When SWS is decreased by deprivation, daytime sleepiness increases and a reduction in athletic performance occurs.

In a study comparing sleep duration between athletes and the general population, it was found that the athlete group slept for a greater period, however they had a longer sleep latency (time taken to fall asleep) and lower sleep efficiency.

In another study, 632 athletes were surveyed and of these athletes, 66% (416) reported that they slept worse than normal at least once before a competition. 70% reported problems falling asleep, 43% reported waking up early in the morning, and 32% reported waking during the night.

It has been found that a disruption athletes’ sleep is due to a poor/lack of a sleep routine, poor sleep habits (i.e. staying up late, using electronic devices in bed), waking to use the bathroom, high caffeine use, and excessive worrying. It’s also been suggested that athletes who compete at night also have significant difficulties falling asleep post-competition.

In a study researching the importance of sleep in sport, researchers found that sleep deprivation led to a significant decrease in isokinetic performance, and it significantly reduced vertical jump performance.

It also led to a:

○ Decrease in sprint time

○ Reduced muscle glycogen content

○ Reduced peak voluntary force

○ Reduced voluntary activation

○ Increased perceptual strain

○ Reduced maximal strength

Sleep deprivation can also be detrimental to our immune system, by disrupting our circadian rhythm and endocrine system, leading to an increased risk of illness.

A way of fighting this can be done through both extended sleep periods and napping, which have been shown to improve our immune function, increase sprint times, improve both accuracy and alertness, mood and decrease levels of fatigue.

Strategic napping can have a positive impact and be very beneficial for athletes who have to be up early for training or competitions. Following a thirty-minute nap, sprint performance was enhanced, and sleepiness was decreased in test subjects.

Diet is also another factor that has a huge impact on our sleep. Foods high in carbohydrate such as white rice, pasta, bread, and potatoes have been found to promote better sleep by improving sleep-onset latency (how long it takes to fall asleep) and increasing levels of tryptophan in the brain. Foods containing large amounts of tryptophan such as seaweed, soy protein, spinach, and pork have been linked with being a sleep inducer.

In a recent study, it was found that diets high in carbohydrate resulted in shorter sleep latencies, diets high in protein resulted in improved sleep quality, diets high in fat have a negative influence on total sleep time and when total caloric intake is decreased our sleep quality is disturbed.

It’s quite clear that sleep plays a very important role in an athlete’s life, although it is often overlooked.  A poor night’s sleep vs a good night’s sleep could be the difference between a gold or bronze medal, keeping your cool or getting a red card.

I offer personal sleep coaching for athletes to coach them on sleeping techniques, sleep habits, sleep hygiene, product guidance, pre & post sleep routines, and much more to ultimately enhance the athletes overall wellbeing and sporting performance.