The Impact of Sleep on Athletic Performance by Lauren Cowley


[Lauren Cowley is currently a senior at the University of Mount Olive and will graduate in May 2017. She is an Exercise Science Major, and a former NCAA DII Soccer Player. She is currently an Athletic Development Intern at Athletic Lab.]

Peak athletic performance appears to be a function of three things: physical performance, adequate nutrition, and sleep. The first two of these appear to be common sense, perhaps the two things that come to mind when one think’s of an athlete achieving peak performance, but sleep plays an equally important role. Without adequate sleep, effective recovery cannot take place which resultantly impacts an athlete’s performance. Current evidence recommends obtaining, on a regular basis, 7 or more hours of sleep per night to promote optimal health among adults aged 18 to 60 years (Watson et al., 2015). Obtaining at least eight hours is essential in preventing neurobehavioral deficits such as concentration difficulties, fatigue, emotional lability, irritability, and sleep and appetite disturbances (Van Dongen et al., 2003).

Sleep has been recognized as an essential component of preparation for, and in recovery from, high intensity training (Reilly & Edwards, 2007). The Human Performance Model (See Figure 1) is a model that is formed of five areas that are believed to have the greatest impact on athletic performance: sleep, hydration, nutrition, mental preparation, and conditioning. It focuses on the influencers of wins and losses, meaning if all five components are fulfilled, the likelihood of winning increases significantly. If any or all components become neglected, then the likelihood of winning may decrease accordingly (“5 areas sleep has the greatest impact on athletic performance – Fatigue Science Public Website”.)

(Figure 1. The Human Performance Model)

In terms of improving reaction times, Mah et al. (2011) found that mean reaction time decreased when collegiate basketball players extended their sleep to a minimum of ten hours per night (Mah et al., 2011). A psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), was used as the standard measure of reaction time. The task involved subjects responding to ten minutes of stimuli, which occurred at a range of 2 to 12 second intervals, by pressing a button on a personal digital assistant with their dominant thumb. A study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2008, conducted on members of the Stanford University men and women’s swim teams also found that by increasing swimmers average sleep to at least ten hours per night for an extended period of time their reaction time off the blocks decreased by 0.5 seconds (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2008). It has also been found that sleep deprivation, which is getting less than eight hours of sleep per night, reduces reaction times significantly by up to 300% (Shapiro, 1981).

Lack of sleep correlates with higher risk of injury (Shapiro, 1981). Teenage athletes who frequently attain at least eight hours per night are 68% less likely to injure themselves playing sports than those who do not regularly obtain eight hours each night (American Academy of Pediatrics, n.d.). Sleeping less than six hours per night is associated with fatigue-related injuries among youth soccer, basketball, football and running athletes (Luke et al., 2011). Sleep promotes muscle recovery, which allows time for cell regeneration and repair in the body. Dr. Michael Landers also found that sleep deprivation affects proprioception. People who do not obtain eight hours of sleep will have less balance, which could potentially become more susceptible to injury (“secret to teen athletes’ success might be their sleep | Healthy Living | Dallas News,” n.d.).

Sleep can also potentially extend the length of an athlete’s playing career. The MLB found that fatigue can lessen the playing careers of professional baseball players (American Academy of Sports Medicine, 2012). American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2012) found that professional athlete’s longevity and their degree of sleepiness were interrelated. Based on voluntary answers to a questionnaire, researchers found that in the sport of Professional Football, athletes who tested to be ‘sleepier’ had just a 38% chance of remaining with the team that originally drafted them. Whereas less ‘sleepy’ athletes had a 56% possibility of remaining with their original team, which regarded them as a value pick. In the sport of Professional Baseball, players who were found to have high levels of daytime sleepiness had 57-86% attribution rates, almost double the MLB average which is 30-35% (American Academy of Sports Medicine, 2012).

Sleep is essential for the body’s physiological, biochemical and cognitive restoration. Through this adequate restoration, enhanced accuracy and faster sprint times can be achieved. In a study of collegiate basketball players, Mah et al. (2011) found that with ten hours sleep per night for a period of seven to eight weeks, the player’s timed sprint average improved from 16.2seconds to 15.5seconds. Shooting accuracy also increased, with the player’s average free throw percentage increasing by 9% and the 3 point field goal percentage average also increasing by 9.2% (Mah et al., 2011). Football players average 40 yard dash and 20yard shuttle times also both improved by ten seconds following a sleep extension period of seven to eight weeks, with each player obtaining a minimum of ten hours of sleep per night.

A study conducted on members of the Stanford University men and women’s swimming teams found that obtaining extra sleep, a minimum of ten hours per night, over a prolonged period of time improves athletic performance, mood and alertness. Following this extended period of time of extra sleep, athletes swam a 15m sprint 0.51seconds faster, improved their turn time by 0.10 seconds and increased their kick strokes by five kicks (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2008). A similar study, conducted on members of the Stanford Tennis team found that when athletes extended their nightly sleep to ten hours per night for a period of five to six weeks, sprint times improved from an average of 19.12 seconds to 17.56seconds (Mah et al., 2011).

Sleep is vital for memory consolidation, the process of retaining a memory trace following an initial stimulus, and motor learning, the process of improving motor skills through practice (Luke et al., 2011). Adequate sleep can lead to fewer mental errors, as sleep loss impairs the brain’s frontal lobe, which in term blights judgment. This can have detrimental effects on decision making (Shapiro, 1981). A study conducted by Scott Kutscher (2013) found that as the 162 game baseball season progressed, MLB player’s strike zone judgement at the plate significantly decreased. He suggested this could be potentially avoided through effective fatigue management (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2013).

There are two distinct states to sleep, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non REM. Whilst the REM state forms 20% of each night’s sleep, the non REM state forms the other 80%. Non REM has four stages. Stage one is a very light sleep, present when one begins to fall asleep at night. Stage two is moderate sleep and forms 50% of each night’s non REM state.  Stage two is important for the recovery of multiple cognitive and bodily functions. The most important stage for the recovery process occur in is stage 3, also referred to as slow wave sleep (SWS). This stage is crucial for growth, cell-rebuilding, and repair. The effects of this stage are disturbed glucose metabolism (Spiegel et al., 1999), appetite regulation (Spiegel et al., 2004) and cognitive performance and mood (Belenky et al., 2003). The final stage of non REM, frequently merged with stage 3, is very deep sleep.

Some helpful tips for obtaining more sleep from the National Sleep Foundation include sticking to sleep routine, going to bed and waking up at the same time every single day, even on the weekend, as well as having a bedtime ritual that is relaxing. It is also suggested to avoid naps if one has trouble sleeping and to exercise daily. Ensure your mattress and pillow are also comfortable, as this could affect your sleep significantly (“Sleeping Tips & Tricks – National Sleep Foundation.”) Always ensure you are obtaining at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night in order to allow efficient recovery to take place and to promote overall health. Most importantly, ensure that you are regarding sleep as an essential part of peak athletic performance. Adequate sleep can lead to improved reaction times (Mah et al., 2011, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2008, Shapiro, 1981), reduced injury rates (Shapiro, 1981, American Academy of Pediatrics, n.d., Luke et al., 2011), potentially longer playing careers (American Academy of Sports Medicine, 2012), better accuracy and faster sprint times (Mah et al., 2011, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2008) as well as fewer mental errors (Luke et al., 2011, Shapiro, 1981, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2013).


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