Sleep is important for everyone in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but comes into particular focus for athletes, not just at the elite level looking to optimize their performance, but also for recreational athletes wanting to get the most out of their training and avoid injury. There is good evidence that lack of sleep impacts various biological systems that influence athletic training and performance.
Compromised reaction time in those with sleep disturbance is well documented in the literature. Adequate sleep in young athletes has been found to increase shooting accuracy in basketball players and the accuracy of serves among tennis players. Conversely, impaired sleep can decrease reaction time and exercise tolerance, and result in a shorter time to exhaustion in high effort settings.
With respect to endurance training, it has been shown that those with sleep restriction have altered perceived exertion during an endurance task. One study examined the effects of 3 nights of both sleep extension and sleep restriction on endurance cycling performance. Sleep extension for the three nights led to better maintenance of endurance performance compared with normal and restricted sleep. Those in the sleep extension group also had improved performance in an endurance cycling time trial (1).
Additionally, impaired sleep leads to suppressed immunity that can result in missed training or competition due to illness. Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of cellular protein that works to fight infection and inflammation, effectively mounting an immune response. Interestingly, chronic sleep issues can impact efficacy of the flu vaccine by reducing your body’s ability to mount an immune response.
There are also less well-known processes that can be altered following sleep deprivation. Changes in glucose metabolism and neuroendocrine function as a result of ongoing lack of optimal sleep may result in changes in carbohydrate metabolism, neural control of appetite and protein synthesis. These factors can all negatively influence an athlete’s nutritional, metabolic and endocrine systems thereby potentially reduce athletic performance.
Addressing deficiencies in your sleep hygiene routine can ensure you optimize your sleep routine. Use of technology and exposure to screens less than 2 hours prior to going to bed can suppress melatonin production and interfere with the body’s natural sleep induction processes. Avoiding screens before bed is optimal, but if that isn’t possible, try blue light reducing strategies such as software or special glasses. Maintenance of a regular sleep schedule helps with overall sleep quality. Avoiding major weekend sleep schedule changes is beneficial; however, data on logging a couple of extra hours over the course of the weekend shows benefit in those lacking sleep hours. Early morning exposure to bright natural light further stabilizes the body’s schedule. Taking measures to decrease mental stress through mindfulness and meditation helps with restful sleep.
Many athletes feel the subjective benefits of napping. Sleep experts recommend napping for no more than 15 to 30 minutes and to time this in the middle of your normal sleep period. A nap is defined as lying down with eyes closed. This is a brain and body rest. Some experts suggest the strategy of consuming caffeine prior to the nap to assist with the wake up process (2).
High quality sleep is important for everyone; however athletes tend to require more sleep and the there is a great deal of evidence supporting the important role of sleep in sport, immunity and recovery. It is clear that sleep should be consider a fundamental component of a successful training plan.
1.Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 51(12):2516–2523, DECEMBER 2019. Extended Sleep Maintains Endurance Performance Better than Normal or Restricted Sleep
2.YLM Sport Science. 8 Practical Tips to Nap Wisely. Dec 29, 2019.
Dr. Sara Forsyth
MSc, MD, CCFP (SEM), DipSportMed (CASEM)
Dr. Sara Forsyth is a Sports Medicine Physician at both Footbridge Clinic and Fraser Orthopaedic Institute. She received her M.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2002 and her Diploma of Sports Medicine in 2008. In 2012 she earned her Masters of Science from the University of British Columbia. Read full bio