When athletes are well-rested, they perform better. Tired athletes aren’t as effective on the field.
So, in this article we’re going to take a closer look at one of the most important elements of training that a coach can’t control: sleep.
Why is a good night’s sleep so important for athletes?
All of this applies to non-athletes too, of course. A positive and proactive sleep routine comes with numerous benefits, especially if you need to be physically at mentally at your best for a big game, or an important training session.
According to numerous studies published by The Sleep Foundation, athletes benefit from positive sleep routines in a number of ways:
- Gives the heart a chance to rest. Allows the body to recover after physical exercises, so that tissues and cells can repair themselves. Not only that, but as you progress through the stages of sleep, this promotes and accelerates cardiovascular health.
- Preventing illness, or recovering from an illness. During sleep, the body produces cytokines, hormones that help strengthen the immune system and fight off diseases.
- When athletes are learning new skills, sleep is essential to allow the brain to embed new knowledge and mental pathways. Memories of these new skills can be more effectively formed and retained with the benefits of a consistent sleep schedule.
- Decision making and cognitive reasoning is noticeably higher when an athlete has a positive sleep routine and attitude towards sleep.
- An athlete’s mental health is noticeably better when they’re benefiting from a positive and consistent sleep routine.
- Athletes can run up to 9% faster, and go from a standing start more effectively when they’ve been getting more sleep.
- In tennis, for example, another study showed that the accuracy of a players’ serve increased from 36% to 42% when they started getting more sleep.
- Other studies have shown that getting enough sleep before a competitive game usually has a positive impact towards the outcome of that game.
Now, if we want to consider the flipside of this, there’s numerous consequences of athletes not getting enough sleep.
How does poor sleep impact athletes’ performance?
- Reduced ability. Athletes who’d suffered from not sleeping enough before a big game experienced reduced average and total sprint times, according to numerous studies published by The Sleep Foundation
- Reduced accuracy. Whether you are kicking or throwing a ball, or swinging a tennis racket, not getting enough sleep can reduce accuracy as much as 53%.
- Quicker exhaustion. You have less energy when you’ve had less sleep, so it’s no surprise that studies show athletes get more exhausted faster when they are sleep deprived.
- Slower reaction times. This comes down to a combination of cognitive impairment and being physically exhausted; but, studies clearly show dramatically reduced reaction times when athletes are sleep deprived.
- Poor learning and decision making. It’s widely known that poor sleep leads to cognitive impairment and reduced executive function, making it harder for players to cope with the mental load of learning new skills, or even implementing skills they have done thousands of times before into action.
- Increased injury risk. Tiredness increases the risk that players will suffer an injury in a game or training.
- Resistance to illness is also reduced.
Because athletes’ physical demands are higher, both in training and during competitive seasons, sleep needs to be trained in the same way as other exercises.
How to improve an athletes’ sleep performance?
According to various studies, the optimal amount of sleep an athlete should get is between 7 and 9 hours every night.
Elite athletes should be encouraged to think of sleep in the same way they do exercise and diets. Of course, every athlete sleeps differently. Some suffer from insomnia, or go through patches where they’re not getting enough sleep. In those cases, a nap following a bad night’s sleep is recommended.
When athletes are traveling, they’re not likely to get as much sleep when they’re at home. In which case, we’ve outlined ways they can get more sleep before important away games.
Getting more sleep is also encouraged when an athlete knows they won’t get the complete 7-9 hours on a specific date. One way to offset this is to extend sleep in the nights running up to an important game, or when they’re going to travel for a competitive match.
Or when they’re recovering from injury, or unwell. Getting more sleep is always the best course of action when a player isn’t at their best.
Here are several other best practice guidelines for athletes from The Sleep Foundation:
- Create an optimal sleep environment. A comfortable and firm (but not too firm) bed, not much noise, dark (blackout blinds under curtains are ideal), and cool enough for sleep, ideally around 62–69 degrees Fahrenheit (or 16–20 Celsius). Bedrooms should only be used for sleep and sex, not work and TV.
- No alcohol and caffeine before sleep. Both can disrupt sleep, so make sure to avoid these liquids within at least an hour or more before sleep.
- Avoid screens before bed. Phones, tablets, computers and TVs can affect your circadian rhythm, making it harder to sleep.
- Have a wind-down routine. Focus on the best activities possible to wind-down at the end of a busy day, such as meditation, taking a bath, reading, etc.
- Try again after 20-minutes. If you can’t fall asleep after 20-minutes, get out of bed and try another wind-down activity until you’re tired enough.
- Don’t train/play too late. Training or playing competitive matches (whenever they can be avoided) too late disrupts sleep patterns, so try and stop any physical activity several hours before bed.
- Don’t nap too late. Avoid naps after 3pm if you want to have a good night’s sleep, even if you’re tired.
- Reduce mental stress. Too many mental stresses can affect sleep. Talk through these with someone you know and trust, such as a loved one, partner, therapist, or coach, to improve sleep performance.