Sleep and its effect on athletic performance is an area of growing research which is gaining greater and greater momentum.
Any elite athlete will tell you the value of sleep for recovery and regeneration purposes and how vital it is for them to get good quality sleep. It’s not just elite athletes who know the value of good quality sleep, we should all be able to benefit in some form paying attention to our sleep hygiene (sleep duration, evening rituals, lighting, napping, nutrition).
Often, a lack of sleep is seen as a badge of honour, “oh I had two hours sleep and still worked out” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. Great.
“Sleep is the best meditation”
Let’s have a look at some of the science of increased sleep and benefits to performance.
Research by Mah et al., (2011) managed to demonstrate that elite level college basketball players at the were able to improve their on-the-court performance by increasing their amount of total sleep time.
Extensive research has shown the impact that sleep debt has on cognitive function, mood and physical performance. However, very few studies have looked at the other end of the spectrum: the effect that sleep extension can actually have on physical performance.
Now, how many times have we been told to get a good nights sleep the night before a competition? But what about the rest of our training week?
Back to the study. Over the course of two basketball seasons, Mah and her colleagues worked with 11 elite college players with a goal of investigating the effects of sleep extension on specific measures of athletic performance, as well as reaction time, mood and daytime sleepiness.
Mah and her colleagues asked the players to keep to their normal nighttime schedule (sleeping for six to nine hours) for two to four weeks (during this time baseline data was collected) and then aim to sleep 10 hours each night for the next five to seven weeks. During this latter period, players avoided drinking caffeine and alcohol, and they were asked to take daytime naps when travel prohibited them from reaching the 10 hours of nighttime sleep.
At the end of the sleep extension period, the players ran faster 282-foot sprints (16.2 seconds versus 15.5 seconds) than they had at baseline. Shooting accuracy during practice also improved: Free throw percentages increased by 9 percent and 3-point field goal percentage increased by 9.2 percent. Fatigue levels decreased following sleep extension, and athletes reported improved practices and games. On average the players had slept for an additional 1 hour and 50 minutes each night. What is interesting is that these were elite players, not children or junior athletes but elite collegiate players.
At the start of the study, using a questionnaire, the authors discovered that many of the players had a moderate to high level of daytime sleepiness and appeared to be racking up a sleep debt. As the season went on the players reduced their sleep debt and the player reported notable benefits in training and performance due to the increased sleep time. However the authors did note that it is unclear whether this period of sleep extension eliminated all sleep debt. Without utilizing an Multiple Sleep Latency Test (a sleep disorder diagnostic tool), it is very difficult to determine whether objective sleepiness, and thus sleep debt, was completely eliminated.
The authors concluded though that extended sleep beyond one’s habitual nightly sleep likely contributes to improved athletic performance, reaction time, daytime sleepiness, and mood and that it is likely that optimal sleep habits and obtaining adequate sleep will play an important role in peak performance in all levels of sports. There were some limitations to the study which was noted by the authors, the sample size was small and the study didn’t focus on in game performance, only measures from their testing battery.
While things such as nutrition and physical training are part of an athlete’s daily regimen, should it be that athletes at all levels focus on optimizing their sleep as a tool for recovery. They are usually just told to get a “good night’s sleep” before a competition, which as Mah and colleagues have demonstrated, may not be enough.
Good sleep hygiene is critical for quality sleep and recovery in athletes. A strong foundation of good sleep habits is essential and is especially helpful when you may have difficulty sleeping during competition or post-exercise. Our bodies like regularity, so start by evaluating whether you have a regular approach to sleep. Then, ask yourself if you’re following these tips on sleep hygiene:
1. Optimize your sleep environment – make your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. A sleep environment conducive to quality sleep is important both at home and on the road. Make sure your bed is comfortable.
2. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Our bodies like regularity so prioritize the same bedtime and wake time every day.
3. Establish a regular 20-30 minute routine before bed – try reading, journaling, listening to music. A regular routine before sleeping can help your body wind down and anticipate sleep. Turn off television and remove smartphone from the room. Take a warm bath or cool shower.
4. Reduce liquid consumption 2 hours before bed & avoid large fatty meals. Stay hydrated during the daytime, but reduce liquids before sleeping. Make it part of your routine to stop by the bathroom before turning out the lights to reduce awakenings at night. Cut down on caffeine.
5. Difficulty sleeping or have a racing mind? Try 30 minutes of stretching before your 20-30 minute routine before bed. Utilize this time to process your thoughts on practice/game before winding down to sleep. Breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation may also be useful.