Now I’m certainly no professional athlete, but I am someone who exercises very regularly, takes their training seriously, and I’d like to class myself as “above average” in terms of strength and fitness.
So, for me, it’s important to know – Does sleep affect athletic performance?
I would also say that if sports and training is a big part of your life, whether that means playing in a football league, taking part in martial arts tournaments, cycling the length and breadth of the country, or even training for a marathon, then you can consider yourself an athlete as well.
I think before I get into the “Why’s” and “How’s” I’m just going to answer the question immediately.
YES, from a personal perspective, sleep definitely has a major influence on how well I perform in the gym or on the track. And the same can be said for everyone.
I would say that sleep appears to be even more important in terms of my performance as I’ve got older, but I guess that is to be expected.
My initial thoughts were simply that a lack of sleep would obviously make me feel tired the following day.
So I probably wouldn’t sprint as fast, or I’d need a longer rest between my sets of heavy squats, but I could still struggle through for a decent workout.
However, I’m sure there’s more to it than that, which has led me to research this subject further.
Why Sleep is So Important For You to Perform at Your Best
It’s funny, if you ask any professional athlete, or budding amateur for that matter, what is required for them to excel at their particular sport, and you’ll be greeted with a variety of answers.
Some may say that getting stronger in the gym and working on their conditioning is what is required.
Others may argue that constant practice and persistence is the key.
You may even hear some athletes extol the virtues of nutrition and coaching.
All fantastic answers, but I would hazard a guess that not many (if any) will mention sleep as being one of the most important factors.
With that being said, I am going to introduce you to the sleeping routines of some of the most successful world-class athletes in a short while, and it seems that they take their sleep very seriously.
Anyway, back to the point – why is sleep so important to any athlete?
I’d like to initially talk about certain aspects I have mentioned in many articles before, more specifically my article, Deep Sleep vs REM Sleep.
During deep sleep the human growth hormone is released, which is essential for the body’s cells to repair and rebuild themselves.
This is something I discovered quite early on with my training.
In fact, how often have you heard the saying, “muscles aren’t built in the gym”?
You can do all the reps and sets you want, but without adequate nutrition and rest you’re simply not going to get bigger, stronger or better.
This “growth” process takes place while we rest, which is why we are told to take rest days with training,
However, I’ve always found this advice a little ironic, especially when I look at the training schedules of professional athletes.
I mean, I can’t imagine Canelo Alvarez refusing to skip and spar today because he did it yesterday.
Or Lionel Messi deciding not to kick a ball in training, as it’s only been about 12 hours since he last did.
Nevertheless, it is still a proven fact that rest is required. Just how much rest you need, I guess very much depends on your level of eliteness.
Back to sleep again.
So, the body repairs and rebuilds during deep sleep. Well, actually there’s a little more to it than that.
Deep sleep will restore energy, regenerate the body’s cells, strengthen the immune system, increase the supply of blood to the muscles, and promote growth in the bones and tissues.
Therefore, you could say deep sleep is very important in keeping the body in great, working order.
As for REM sleep, this is more about rejuvenating the brain.
You may not think that the brain has much to do with athletic performance, but trust me it does.
Not getting enough REM sleep will typically affect our mood, memory and cognitive performance.
REM sleep also has an impact on cell regeneration. Additionally, it’s interesting to note that we perceive pain differently depending on how much REM sleep we’ve had (extremely important in terms of how well you perform in your particular sport).
If two people have the exact same injury, a person who is getting less REM sleep will actually perceive this pain to be worse than the other person.
So, as you can see, sleep can have a huge impact on how well we perform.
In essence, in terms of athletic performance, not getting enough sleep can:
- Mess with your focus, attention and mental attitude.
- Slow your reaction times.
- Have an affect on how well you recover.
- Make you prone to injury.
Focus, Attention and Mental Attitude
As I’ve mentioned, a lack of sleep will impact on your overall mood, your mental focus, and it is likely to increase your stress levels.
Having a positive mindset is extremely important to any athlete.
One of the most highly acclaimed mind management books of recent times, The Chimp Paradox, was written by English psychiatrist, Dr. Steve Peters.
Dr. Peters is well-known for his work in elite British sports and has worked alongside names such as Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Liverpool Football Club, and the England Football Team.
Just the fact that Dr. Peters was employed to work alongside some of these names shows the importance of mental attitude within sport.
I have read of many Olympians who attribute their success to practicing visualization techniques and having a positive attitude.
Possibly the most famous sportsperson who ever lived is proof of the advantages of a positive mental attitude,
“I Am The Greatest” – Muhammad Ali
Now think back to a time you were sleep-deprived.
How did the next day feel?
Did you have a positive mindset?
I’m guessing, No. Not sleeping well will typically cause you to feel irritable, it interferes with your ability to think positive thoughts, and it increases the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
All of these things will have grave consequences when it comes to focus, attention and your mental attitude.
Sleep deprivation has often been compared to intoxication by alcohol when it comes to reaction times.
The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School estimated that being awake for 22 hours straight can slow your reaction time more than 4 alcoholic drinks will.
This can have a major impact for any athlete.
However, I’m not just talking about elite athletes here either.
How often have you been accident-prone the day after a particularly bad night’s sleep?
Dropping things, knocking stuff over, tripping on a curb, etc. these are all due to your decreased reaction times.
Obviously, a professional athlete would want to abstain from alcohol before a game/match/race/meet (although that wasn’t always the case), but being poorly rested could have the exact same effect on them.
If you take part in any sport then you will know that you typically have a fraction of a second to react to what’s happening in front of you. And any time wasted could be the difference between winning and losing.
Did you know that going sleepless for a complete night can reduce your reaction times by up to 300%?
Plus it will also take you a few days to completely recover and get back to normal.
Your central nervous systems and muscles typically recover from the day’s exertions during sleep. I’ve mentioned the release of human growth hormones during deep sleep, which is essential for muscle growth and for an athlete to sustain or improve their performance.
Additionally, it is the central nervous system that is responsible for factors such as how we respond to pain, contractions of the muscles, and our reaction times.
I think another factor that many people may not consider is the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin.
It is melatonin that typically tells the brain that it is time to sleep, but this hormone also activates various other enzymes which are vital for reducing inflammation in the body.
Less inflammation equals quicker recovery.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine published a study in 2013. They followed 80 Major League Baseball players over a 3-year period.
The players had their sleeping habits recorded prior to the start of the 2010 season and they ranked in accordance with the Epworth Sleepiness Scale.
It was estimated that players who scored high on the scale for sleepiness were less than 40% likely to still be playing at the end of the 3 years.
Basically, their lack of sleep was hampering their recovery time, which would eventually cut short their careers.
Prone to Injury
This is something that I can definitely relate to.
I have suffered from sleep deprivation and insomnia for a number of years and I even went through a period of getting slight niggles or full-blown injuries quite often.
Initially, I looked at my warm up routine, plus how I cooled down and stretched at the end of a session.
Then it was onto my nutrition, and I even considered the fact that I may be training a little too hard.
However, it eventually dawned on me that my injury rate seemed to be far higher the day after a bad night’s sleep.
The main reasons for injuries have pretty much been covered in the sections above.
A lack of sleep is going to make you tired and fatigued.
This in turn affects the immune system, making it more likely that you’ll get sick or injured.
Fatigue will slow down your reaction times, which again can lead to making a mistake that can cause an injury.
Plus, we now know that sleep deprivation doesn’t give the cells enough time to regenerate, or the body enough time to recover, and this will typically lead to injury as we’re not “fully prepared” to train or perform again, i.e. we’re not fully recovered.
A study by the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine was conducted in 2014 on 160 student athletes (although only 112 of them completed the required online surveys).
The findings showed that the athletes who slept for less than 8 hours a night were 1.7 times more likely (so almost double) to have an injury than those who slept for longer than 8 hours.
How Long Do Professional Athletes Sleep For?
A 2012 ESPN article revealed the sleep schedules for some of the world’s most elite athletes.
Topping the list were Roger Federer and LeBron James who both admitted to sleeping for 12 hours a day.
A little lower down on the list were Usain Bolt, Steve Nash, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams who sleep for 10 hours.
Funnily enough, a few years after the ESPN article, Williams’s younger (and more successful) sister, Serena, released details of her daily schedule, and it appears that she typically slept from midnight until 7am.
A lowly 7 hours a night in comparison to the double-digit athletes above.
Cristiano Ronaldo is said to sleep a very conventional 8 hours a night, although he’s not adverse to taking a nap during the day, and he has said that he often takes up to 5 naps a day.
Floyd Mayweather’s sleeping schedule slightly weirded me out if I’m honest.
Mayweather could be described as someone who does things a little differently. He preferred to complete his training sessions late in the day.
He typically went for a 5-8 mile run at 1am and didn’t go to bed until 5am (although on occasions he’d still be up at 6am or 7am).
However, he still ensured he got 9-10 hours of sleep a “night” and therefore wouldn’t surface from his slumber until 2.30pm most days.
So, in the main I think it’s fair to say that the world’s top athletes know only too well the benefits of getting a great night’s rest.
I think the answer is obvious when it comes to athletic performance and the importance of sleep.
As you can see the way in which both the brain and the body repair and rejuvenate themselves requires a good quality and quantity of sleep.
And if the brain and body are in great working order you can expect to perform well in your given sport.
The detrimental effects of a lack of sleep on your performance is plain for all to see.
So, if you want to shave a few seconds off that personal best, or you’re looking to score a hatrick at the weekend, my suggestion is to ensure you’re getting plenty of shut-eye.