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Bring back the nap: How sleep affects athletic performance

So how does sleep, or a lack thereof, affect athletic performance?

How sleep affects athletic performance

Many of us are guilty of it. That is, getting less than the recommended 7 hours per night. And with the media constantly portraying diet and exercise as the keys to improve your athletic performance, it’s easy to underestimate the powers of a good night’s rest. For athletes, however, insufficient sleep before game day could be the ultimate difference between winning and losing.

Fatigue Science, a leader in fatigue-related risk management and human performance optimisation, published a list of the top five areas in which sleep impacts athletic performance the most.

“Getting that eight, nine hours is just as important as weightlifting and studying your playbook.” Kyle Long, Chicago Bears Pro Bowl guard

Improved reaction times

Just one all-nighter is enough to reduce your reaction time by more than 300%. To put this into perspective, studies have shown that a low level of fatigue can impair your reaction time as much as, if not more, than being legally drunk.

Reduced injury rates, improved overall health

A study conducted by the University of California concluded that the number of injuries sustained by young athletes during games increased following a night of less than six hours rest.

Longer playing careers

One study on Major League Baseball players found that the shortening of playing careers and prospective income to be earned is a consequence that fatigued professional athletes face.

Better accuracy, faster sprint times

A researcher at Stanford, Cheri Mah, conducted a sleep-extension study on the university’s men’s basketball team to test the effects of snoozing on their athletic ability. Mah asked the players to maintain a regular bedtime schedule for the first four weeks. They then increased dozing as much as possible over the following seven weeks. Basketball-specific tests were also used after every practice to measure the players’ athletic performance. Results from the study found that the players demonstrated a faster timed sprint and improved shooting accuracy following the sleep extension.

Fewer mental errors

Studies have shown that being poorly rested can impair your judgement, motivation, focus and memory. Without resting, your brain struggles to consolidate your memory and absorb new knowledge, hindering your learning abilities.

Learning from the pros

The science of sleep, and its correlation to sport and performance is a relatively new field. Recently, coaches and athletes around the world have started integrating sleeping and napping into their training schedules. So how are the athletes integrating shuteye into their training? In 2015, University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones introduced sleep trackers and coaches into his team’s new practice routine. The athletes also wore orange-tinted glasses before bed to eliminate the blue light emitting from their electronic devices and reduce disrupted rest. The result of prioritising sleep at the University saw a cultural shift from who could snooze less and still do well at practice, to it being cool to show up to practice being well-rested.

Another football coach, Pat Fitzgerald from the Northwestern University, also made sleep a training priority. In 2012, Pat noticed that many of his players seemed tired during afternoon games. He realised that these games occurred when his players were used to taking their afternoon naps. As a result, Pat introduced mandatory game-day naps, and for the third time in the history of Northwestern football, the team won ten games that year.

Sleeping for longer vs. Napping

But don’t jump into bed earlier and try to cram 10 hours of sleep every night. First, it’s good to know whether sleeping for longer in one single stretch is actually worth your while. Shona L. Halson, PhD at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, collated some data and published an article detailing the effects that sleep extension has on elite athletes.

Halson cites a 2012 study in the Journal of Sports Science that compared the sleeping habits of 47 Olympic athletes over four days to those of non-sporting people of the same age and sex. During the study, the group of athletes had a total time in bed of around eight and a half hours, while the non-athletes spent around eight hours and 10 minutes in bed.

“Despite the longer time in bed, the athlete group had a longer sleep latency (time to fall asleep) and a lower sleep efficiency (estimate of sleep quality) than controls, resulting in a similar time asleep. The results demonstrated that while athletes had a comparable quantity of sleep to controls, significant differences were observed in the quality of sleep between the two groups.” Shona L. Halson.

Although studies have found that getting a longer period of shuteye positively affects athletic performance, spending more time in bed doesn’t guarantee you a longer or a better night’s sleep. But napping has had some pretty great results. Another study in the Journal of Sports Science researched the effects that a midday nap has on the sprint performance of athletes who have had only four hours. The study found that after a 30-minute nap, their alertness and 20m sprint performance increased, while their tiredness decreased. Halson writes that athletes suffering from sleep deprivation can benefit from napping, especially if they routinely rise early for training or competitions.

Keys to getting a better night’s rest

One woman who has been working hard to raise awareness about the importance of forty winks is Arianna Huffington. Her most recent book, The Sleep Revolution, addresses what she calls the “sleep deprivation crisis”.

“It is a spectre haunting the industrialised world. Simply put: we don’t get enough shuteye. And it’s a much bigger problem – with much higher stakes – than many of us realise,” says Arianna in The Sleep Revolution.

Here are some of Adrianna’s top tips on how to master the art of snoozing:

  1. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool.
  2. No electronic devices starting 30 minutes before bedtime.
  3. Don’t charge your phone next to your bed. Even better: gently escort all devices completely out of your bedroom.
  4. No caffeine after 2pm.
  5. Remember, your bed is for sleep – no work!

Sleep: the not-so-secret performance enhancing tool

Sleep, while often overlooked, is an important component in building the foundation for your athletic performance. It could be the difference between winning or losing, or the not-so-secret weapon to help you achieve your performance goals. Take the time to develop good bedtime habits and proper napping techniques, and incorporate these into your routine. Sleep is an athlete’s new sports performance edge.

Header image via: Gray-Nicolls Instagram