Why Sleep Is Important for Athletic Performance

Sleep Better for Improved Athletic Performance

How many times have we, as coaches or even parents, seen our athlete dragging along in practice or not as responsive during a game as they have been before? We see it all the time. Is it lack of motivation, not trying enough, don’t want to be there or is it something else? As coaches, we are trained to help the athlete develop their specific skills and get to the next level. We put together training programs that strengthen, that increase power and speed, and most importantly, the combinations of movements that minimize injuries. We also make sure that they are appropriately fueled to finish a workout or a game.

There is one more aspect of an athletes training that is just as important as their training. And it has to be worked on just as rigorously as everyday workouts. Sleep. Yes, sleep. So maybe it’s not that the athlete ‘doesn’t want it.’ It might actually be sleep deprivation.

Why is Sleep Important

Everyone needs sleep. From birth to adulthood, the amount of sleep needed changes. On average, babies need about 16-18 hours of sleep. School age children and teenagers need about 9-10 hours of sleep and adults need about 7-9 hours. Seniors and the elderly population tend to sleep shorter amount of time because of factors such as medication that interfere with sleep.

Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.

Sleep and Athletic Performance

Sleep is part of the concept of recovery, short term recovery phase to be exact.

During this short term recovery phase, the body gets ready for the next workout by replenishing energy stores (glycogen), and fluids and optimizing protein synthesis (the process of increasing the protein content of muscle cells, preventing muscle breakdown, and increasing muscle size). This allows the body to repair muscles, tendons, and ligaments for muscle growth and removes excess chemicals that built up during exercise. These processes result in better adaption to the stresses associated with the workouts – meaning, the athlete will get fitter, stronger, powerful, faster, more efficient and minimize injuries.

Sleep also helps keep your mind sharp! As you are sleeping, your brain continues to work by connecting all the information you’ve learned throughout the day. This connection occurs between neurons and it is what allows your body to ‘remember’ the proper technique or the team plays you’ve learned or have been practicing on during your training sessions.

However, when the athlete is sleep deprived, performance suffers.

According to research, lack of adequate sleep in athletes led to:

  • When the normal sleep-wake cycle was disturbed, the fine motor skills of tennis players and handball goalkeepers diminished.
  • Football and judo athletes who experienced four fewer hours of sleep showed decreases in power during anaerobic cycling tests.
  • Weightlifters exhibited worse athletic performance after a second night of restricted sleep than just one night, which suggests a cumulative fatigue effect.
  • In contrast, sprint times were clocked 5% faster and shooting accuracy improved by 9% for Stanford University men’s basketball players who extended sleep time to at least 10 hours a night over seven weeks.

Tips to Improve Sleep

Just like you have a training calendar for your workouts, getting the proper sleep amount requires that level of commitment and planning.

  1. Get on a regular schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  2. Create a relaxing environment that helps the athlete wind down and decompress.
  3. Do not watch TV or any electronic device. The bright lights stimulate your brain to stay awake.
  4. Read a book or listen to music.
  5. Allow for 20-30min naps during the day.
  6. Avoid sleep medication unless prescribed by a doctor. Over-the-counter sleep aids are likely to disturb the quality of sleep and your performance the next day.
  7. Avoid any drinks that may have caffeine before going to bed.

The right training, proper nutrition and sleep are integral to getting the athlete performing to their full potential. If one piece of this equation is lacking, the imbalance can prove detrimental to the athletes health, both their physical or mental health. Being sleepy and falling asleep, isn’t about being lazy. Unlike our body’s other physiological response, our bodies will force us to sleep when it needs it – whether we are in class or behind the wheel. We need to make sure we are getting a quality sleep and that our athletes are doing the same.