Most of the time when we think about the factors that affect athletic performance, we usually think about how much time we spend practising, our recovery leading up to a game, the food we are eating and the time we spend in the weights room. Whether we are getting enough sleep is rarely brought into consideration but there is a lot of research coming out these days which shows that inadequate sleep has huge negative effects on athletic and sports performance.
This is a growing area of research with many variables and so there is still a lot to learn. What is becoming clear, however, is that getting enough sleep is just as important as all the other areas of preparation. Whether you’re a high school athlete or a professional sportsperson, you want to perform to your highest possible standards so it is vital that you gain an edge in any way that you can.
Dr Stuart Mourton, Programme Coordinator in Sport, Outdoor and Exercise Science at the University of Derby, explains: ‘Lack of sleep has been known to severely inhibit a wide range of cognitive and physiological functions, and has even been used as a form of torture as far back as the 16th century. In more modern times, lack of sleep has been shown to have a significant impact in the fields of sport and physical activity, from the learning of perceptual and motor skills, to the performance of physical tasks at both sub-maximal and maximal levels. ‘
In every sport, the way your muscles function is absolutely key to putting in a good performance but a lack of sleep can have an enormously detrimental effect on your muscles. There was an in-depth study carried out at Stanford University in which they used special apps for tracking how much sleep basketball players were getting and how their sleep affected their performance. This is an ideal sport to study because there is such a range of physical attributes that high-level basketball players need to perform at the top level.
These days many people are using these sleep trackers not only to improve their sporting abilities but also their business performance as well as their energy levels and overall health.
Modern basketball at an elite level is incredibly fast, and so professional basketball players need to be great sprinters. The Stanford study showed that without enough quality sleep, athletes lose around 5% of their top sprint speed and as much as 10% of their acceleration. In a sport with such fine margins, this drop off can make all the difference between winning and losing a match. Additionally, basketball players must be very strong to fend off guards and bounce off opponents. The same study showed that athletes were almost 15% weaker when sleep-deprived and additionally their muscle fatigue kicked in significantly sooner than when they were well-rested.
The difference between a good athlete and a great athlete often comes down to mental strength and performance. The athletes at the absolute top of their game are incredibly mentally strong, no matter how big the occasion or what kind of pressure they are under. In every sport, there are occasions when success or failure depends purely on athletes keeping their nerve.
As well as muscular performance, the Stanford University study looked at the impact of sleep on players’ free throw and three-point shooting percentages, as being successful in these skills is all about mental strength. Over the course of several weeks, the researchers worked with the athletes to increase the amount of time they were sleeping to about a hundred and ten extra minutes. This is about 1.5 extra sleep cycles.
They found there was a 9% increase in their three-point shooting percentages and a 9.3% increase in their free-throw shooting percentages.
Meanwhile, Dr Mourton adds that: ‘Research has investigated the impact of sleep deprivation and sleep restriction on athletic performance. Across the board, there appears to be evidence that sleep deprivation should be avoided, as it has a profound impact on several important elements of athletic performance. Some studies have shown a 20% reduction in time to exhaustion in incremental exercise tests after sleep deprivation, while others demonstrate significant cognitive impairment in decision-making tasks compared to non-sleep deprivation participants.’
Diet and nutrition are key aspects of modern sports science and it has been shown that not getting enough sleep can have major negative effects on an athlete’s metabolism; specifically their glucose metabolism. Workouts are game times that are fueled by carbohydrates that break down into sugars, and in order to perform at your best, you want to maximise every single one of the calories that you are eating. Not getting enough sleep reduces the rate of your glucose metabolism meaning that you don’t create fuel as quickly or efficiently as you require for peak performance. Most sports scientists now agree that professional athletes need at least eight hours of sleep per night for an optimal metabolic performance.
At the highest levels of professional sport, the margins between winning and losing are tiny. It is so important that top athletes take every step possible to maximise their performance levels. Studies have shown that there is a clear and direct link between an athlete’s performance and the amount of sleep they get. No matter what level of sport you play, try to get at least eight hours of sleep every night and you will see some significant improvements in every aspect of your game.
‘The research on sleep restriction is less clear cut, with debate over whether it is the lack of optimal sleeping hours, or changes to circadian rhythms, that may be impacting performance. Our circadian rhythm is our internal generated body clock that impacts wakefulness, hormone secretion, cell regeneration and brain wave activity among other processes.
‘It seems understanding this rhythm, the impact of SR on ‘shifting’ this rhythm and trying to account for this, may be the key to reducing the impact of sleep restriction on athletic performance.
Research is ongoing, but it is potentially “feeling” tired, and its link to specific sub-optimal stages of your circadian rhythm for activity, that impacts most on athletic performance, rather than actual sleep restriction itself,’ Dr Mourton concludes.
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