There is nothing quite as rejuvenating as getting a good night’s sleep. For athletes, ensuring sleep is adequate in both duration and quality is essential. Particularly as their schedules often look something like ‘eat sleep train repeat’.
Why? Did you know that research shows that sleep has a direct and significant impact on how well an individual will perform? Both during an event, and during a training session? And, intensive training can actually have a detrimental impact on sleep?
So much so that asking about sleep has now become a standard part of my assessment when I start working with an athlete.
How does sleep (or lack thereof) impact sports performance?
It reduces cognitive performance
Sleeping less than six hours per night for four or more nights in a row has been shown to impair cognitive performance and mood. Lack of sleep has been shown to result in slower and less accurate cognitive performance. Be it slower motor skills, or decision making skills, memory or learning, performance can be impaired. This seems to particularly be the case where fast reaction times are required, or in prolonged sessions. As an example, one study showed that basketball players sprinted faster, and had 9% improvement in free-throw accuracy following adequate sleep, along with improved self rating of physical and mental wellbeing.
Reduced immune function
Lack of sleep has been shown to increase activity of inflammatory cytokines. These can have a negative impact on immune function. Athletes are at increased susceptibility of illness anyway, partly due to the stress exercise itself places on the immune system. This is especially true during heavy training blocks. Lack of sleep exacerbates this further. Resulting in the likelihood of getting sick (especially with upper respiratory infections, or colds), is increased.
A recent study into Brazilian volleyball players showed higher scores for confusion and tension in those who did not sleep well; another study has shown increased depression, tension, confusion, fatigue and anger, and decreased vigor. It isn’t just athletes who suffer poorer mood from lack of sleep; whilst depression can cause sleeplessness, lack of sleep can also cause or contribute to poorer mental health status.
Recent research from the AIS has indicated that sleep deprivation can result in changes to how carbohydrate is metabolised, hormonal function, appetite and protein synthesis (production). This can then result in a negative influence on athletic performance.
It’s not all bad…
Regardless, all of the above problems can be over come simply by getting enough shut eye to allow the body to recover and regenerate.
6 tips for getting a good night’s sleep?
- Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. The light they emit impacts melatonin production, making it more difficult to sleep well.
- A glass of milk or serve of yoghurt for supper is a great choice; research has shown that the old wives tale of milk helping you sleep has more to it than a story. The proteins in milk can actually help stimulate production of melatonin, which is the hormone that helps you get to sleep. Plus, for athletes, this is particularly great, as milk before bed can also help stimulate protein synthesis over night.
- Avoid caffeine later in the afternoon. It takes some time for caffeine to be removed from the body, so stopping consumption earlier in the day helps manage it’s effects.
- Do your best to make healthy food choices over the day. Plenty of veggies, lean protein and low GI carbs all help you to feel well, and perform well. Avoiding high GI (fast digesting) carbs in particularly later in the day is recommended, due to the energy boost they provide.
- Have a bed time routine, so your body knows its time for rest.
- Aim to get up at the same time each day, as this makes it easier to get into a positive sleep routine.
Recently I spoke with Matthew White, from Ergoflex, the online memory foam mattress retailer.
He informed me that many athletes have now come to understand that their choice of mattress can also have an impact on their performance. After-all you spend so much of your life in your bed it’s an investment worth considering.
Matthew continued “Some of the world’s best athletes rely on the great sleep that our mattress brings them as part of their training and event schedules. Currently we have marathon runners, triathletes, cyclists, footballers, rugby players and Olympians all using our mattresses”.
I was recently introduced to Ergoflex and I have to say I’m a big fan. The memory foam they use is so supportive. This helps to relieve pressure on the body and allow restoration to occur.