Athletes need peak sleep for peak performance

During the 2010 Olympic Games, athletes were striving to perform at their best and make their countries proud. Peak performance is a goal that both coaches and scientists continue to research. Most of the focus is on the physical, behavioral and psychological preparation in the few months leading up to the event. Of course, physical training is the most important element to become a top athlete. However, there is now much greater focus on other factors contributing to the performance outcome, such as nutrition, psychological conditioning, and sleep.

Athletes generally need 7-9 hours per night,  similar to the average adult. However, many face several barriers to restful sleep. The most obvious is performance pressure – increased anxiety leads to physical restlessness, circular thinking, anxious rumination, all of which can interfere with sleep. Other barriers to sleep include adjusting to a new time zone, and being surrounded by the distracting “buzz” of the Olympic Village.

Aside from the Olympics, sleep has become an issue in other sports realms as coaches realize athletes need more time to recharge. Three N.B.A teams:  Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, and the Portland Trail Blazers, have dropped their morning practices this season as they interfered with adequate sleep, and so far players and coaches are happy with the change and notice a difference in the quality of practices. Boston Coach, Doc Rivers, explained that after a game ends at around 10:00 pm, the post-game cool down, media showings, meals, etc. mean some players may not get to their beds until 3:00 am. Having to show-up at 9:00 am for practice the following day means getting only 5-6 hours of sleep – which is not enough for peak performance.

Grand Slam Tennis tournaments have also been subject to criticism – even coming from the athletes themselves.  Since a 4:30 am-ending match at the Australian Open two years ago, a chorus of players have spoken out against the late-night start times. Often having to battle jet lag at the same time, some players fight to stay awake- let alone perform optimally.

For top athletes, getting enough sleep has been considered that sort of down-home advice, like eating lots of vegetables, so it is often ignored. But the ongoing research is giving some scientific merit to what used to just sound like an old cliché.

Stanford University sleep researcher Cheri Mah conducted a small study of five Stanford swimmers who increased their sleep time to 10 hours a night from their typical 6 to 9 hours. The swimmers improved their reaction time off the start by 0.15 seconds, and similarly improved their turn time, 15-metre sprint time and kick rate.

Dr. Charles Samuels (Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, Calgary Alberta) is conducting two pilot studies with athletes from the national bobsleigh and skeleton teams and students at the National Sport School in Calgary in the Journal Neurologic Clinics. He has found that poor sleep quality is prevalent in these elite athletes. Dr. Samuels’s research program also includes a project with the Canadian downhill ski team to investigate the link between inadequate sleep and injuries, as well as studies of how globe-trotting athletes can best adjust to crossing time zones.

Since research on sleep and sport remains in its infancy, much of the advice Dr. Samuels can offer athletes is drawn from studies with other populations, such as police officers adapting to shift work. One key conclusion is that there is significant variation among individuals, both in the amount of sleep needed and in the reaction to sleep deprivation. That means it is hard to pin down exactly when an hour of sleep is more valuable than an hour of exercise.

“In terms of overall training benefit, it’s better to get your sleep, because the platform of good training is recovery,” Dr. Samuels says.

For the typical person, consistently increasing the amount of nightly sleep by just a small amount can produce positive effects. Studies show that even a few weeks of increased total sleep time can have a measurable effect of performance – something to keep in mind before the next big event.

Needless to say, your best bet is to get both the exercise and the sleep. However, that may not be a winning strategy, especially for people who are already restricting their sleep. Taking on increased sleep debt has well-known effects on mood and cognitive ability, and a few studies suggest that sleep also has direct links with physical performance.

“It’s average athletes who are the most likely to curtail their sleep to train,” Dr. Samuels says. “They’re getting up at 4 a.m. to run for an hour so they can get to work by 7 a.m.”

Sleep tips for athletes:

  • Make sleep a part of your regular training regimen
  • Extend nightly sleep for several weeks to reduce your sleep debt before competition
  • Maintain low sleep debt by getting a sufficient amount of nightly sleep (seven to eight hours for adults, nine or more hours for teens and young adults).
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day
  • Take brief naps to obtain additional sleep during the day, especially if drowsy

When the difference between top athletes or professional sports teams comes down to tenths-of-a-second, or two points,  adequate sleep could be the difference between a gold medal performance or a a “no” medal performance.