Whether you’re an occasional runner, committed triathlete, or passionate long-distance cyclist, you’ll also be looking at ways you can go one better next time. It’s what gets you out there most of the time. Can you go slightly faster, slightly further or place slightly higher?
We know that to perform well, we must be well-hydrated and well-fueled with the right foods. We must be in peak physical condition and be mentally prepared. We must have the right sports and fitness kit, as well.
In addition, you’ve probably realized that getting a good night’s sleep of seven to eight hours before a big game or race is a good idea, even though last-minute nerves might hamper your chances of being able to drift off to sleep easily. But just how much difference will it make to your performance the next day?
And what about getting high-quality regular sleep, night in, night out? Or even more sleep? How much difference can this make to your performance?
The effects of sleep deprivation
Several studies have been done to look into how the amount of sleep an athlete gets can affect performance.
Regular sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on performance. This may seem unsurprising for endurance sports, like long-distance running and triathlon. However, it can also seriously impact the performance of athletes who engage in sports where only short bursts of energy are required.
One study looked at how this type of athlete was affected by moderate sleep deprivation. Weightlifters were allowed three hours of sleep per night for three nights. Researchers at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at John Moores University in the UK then measured their performance in four key metrics: the biceps curl, bench press, leg press, and deadlift.
Each day the athlete’s performance was logged. The researchers found that there was a trend of “decreased performance in submaximal lifts for all the 4 tasks: the deterioration was significant after the second night of sleep loss.”
It is, therefore, clear that athletes in all disciplines need to avoid regular sleep deprivation and get consistent sleep so that there are no negative effects on training or competition performance. However, can the inverse be true?
What about getting some extra sleep?
Can consciously adding extra sleep improve your performance?
The answer is yes. Researchers at Stanford University in the USA measured the effects of added sleep on professional basketball players. After taking performance measurements over a four-week baseline period, the athletes were encouraged to aim for 10 hours of sleep for a seven-week period.
The results of performance measurements, which included both timed sprints and shooting accuracy saw significant improvements with added sleep. Shooting accuracy improved by as much as 9 per cent.
How does sleep affect the body?
Sleep is considered to be both a recovery period from the previous day’s wakefulness and preparation for the next. During sleep:
- The brain rids itself of toxic waste and stores new information.
- Nerve cells communicate and reorganize, which is vital for healthy brain function.
- The body repairs damaged cells and restores energy.
- Vital hormones and proteins are released.
Getting adequate sleep allows the brain and body to complete these vital tasks adequately.
What is also clear from sports research is that sleep doesn’t just have a positive physiological effect on athletes. Sleep deprivation can seriously affect alertness and decision-making. Many studies have highlighted similarities between the effects of sleep deprivation on athletes and alcohol consumption.
Effects of fatigue on an athlete’s brain
All elite athletes know that their abilities do not lie in strength, speed and physical endurance alone. Their performance relies as much on their mental strength and endurance, their tactical decision-making and a positive mindset.
Making the right pass, choosing the right time to surge ahead in a race, choosing the right shot to make — these are all decisions critical to performance that must be made in a split-second.
One study looked at how mental fatigue might impede the performance of major league baseball players. The results, recorded by researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, showed by the end of the baseball season, strike-zone judgment was generally worse for 24 of the 30 teams in the league.
What is noteworthy about these results is that they go against conventional sporting wisdom: that with the routine, discipline and regular practice through a season, performance should improve. Instead, training and competitive performances must be well-balanced with plenty of rest days and adequate sleep.
Brain function needs to be optimal for the greatest performances. Therefore, the brain as well as the body must be allowed regular, good-quality sleep for the best preparation and performance.
Sleep and injury
A direct correlation between injury rates and sleep has also been found by several studies. A University of California study followed young athletes getting less than six hours of sleep before a game and found that there was a significant increase in injury rates for these players.
Why is this? An explanation is the lack of sleep slows reaction times and leads to poorer decision making, both of which are more likely to cause a collision or fall.
Furthermore, those tending to sleep for short periods will be giving their bodies less opportunity to recover from an existing injury. This has the potential to lead to an exacerbation of problems or secondary compensation injuries.
Should I sleep an extra hour or train instead?
It’s really important to get the balance right between training and sleep. If you are regularly sleeping less than six hours per night, you are almost certainly hindering your performance and risking injury.
If training is the cause of your tight sleep schedule, you would likely benefit from less training, and more sleep. You could even try to squeeze an hour’s nap into your daytime schedule.
Perhaps you are getting more like eight hours of sleep a night but feel you’ve plateaued in your performance stats despite lots of training. If so, then experimenting with longer sleep over several weeks may be a way of breaking the deadlock and upping your game again.