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Sleep and performance

Published: November 22, 2019

Sleep and performance

Sleep is an essential component of health and well-being, with significant impacts on physical development, emotional regulation, cognitive performance, and quality of life. Along with being an integral part of the recovery and adaptive process between bouts of exercise, recent research suggests that increased sleep duration and improved sleep quality is associated with improved performance and competitive success.

Better sleep may reduce the risk of both injury and illness, not only optimizing health but also potentially enhancing performance through increased participation in training. Despite this, most studies have found that many of us fail to obtain the recommended amount of sleep, threatening both occupational and sporting performance as well as health. The effects of reduced sleep quality and time impact not only our physical performance, but our cognitive capabilities too.


How does sleep affect me?

Physical and cognitive performance

Sleep deprivation is commonplace in modern society, but its effects on cognitive performance are beginning to be understood from a scientific perspective. Insufficient sleep leads to a general slowing of reaction speed and variability in cognitive performance and decision making. Alertness, attention and vigilance can be significantly affected, as well as perception, memory and executive functioning. It is widely debated that whether sleep deprivation affects nearly all cognitive capacities in a global manner through degraded alertness and attention, or whether sleep loss specifically impairs some aspects of cognition more than others.

As we sleep memories are created and connections between brain cells are strengthened and information is transferred from short to long-term memory. Without enough quality sleep, we can become more forgetful. Studies suggest that sleeping shortly after we learn new information helps us retain and recall that information later.

Sleep quality can affect how fast an athlete will react and how quickly they will act, how accurate they will be and how many errors they will make. Along with physical and mental conditioning, proper nutrition and hydration, sleep should be a regular part of any athlete’s preparation.

Optimal sleep improves reaction times and reflexes, with a recent studying of basketball players showing that an extra two hours of sleep a night can increase running speed by five percent and shooting accuracy by nine percent. Athletes getting at least nine hours of sleep a night are more likely to do higher-intensity and more effective workouts as they have more energy, less fatigued mentally and physically, and have allowed their muscles adequate time to repair and grow. You can help your body better consolidate memories linked to motor skills simply by sleeping. In fact, sleep has been shown to be important for cementing muscle memory and coordinated body movements.

Injury and illness

Recent evidence suggests that impaired or decreased sleep is associated with an increased risk of injury. In a study of middle and high school athletes, it was found that individuals who slept less than 8 hours per night on average were 70% more likely to report an injury than those who slept more than 8 hours. The greatest risk of injury resulted when training load increased and sleep duration decreased simultaneously. The underlying mechanism for the relationship between sleep loss and injury is unclear, but may be related to resulting impairments in reaction time and cognitive function after sleep deprivation that could predispose to acute injury. Alternatively, impaired sleep may contribute to higher levels of fatigue that can similarly contribute to injury risk in athletes.

Decreased sleep has been shown to be immunosuppressive and increases susceptibility to upper respiratory infections. In a study of 154 adult men and women, authors  monitored sleep duration and efficiency over a 14 day period, after which participants were administered nasal drops containing  the common cold and monitored for symptom development over 5 days. Those individuals who slept less than 7 hours were nearly three times as likely to develop an infection compared with those who slept 8 hours or more. During sleep, our immune systems release proteins called cytokines, which help promote sleep among other things. Certain cytokine levels increase when we have an infection or inflammation, or when you're under stress. Sleep deprivation can decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don't get enough sleep.


How do I sleep better?

Given the significant implications for performance, health and general well-being, a number of recommendations have been suggested to monitor and improve sleep. Individuals with complaints of poor sleep or excessive daytime fatigue should first be screened for medical conditions that could be contributing, such as insomnia, sleep disordered breathing, restless legs syndrome, depression, anxiety, or other illness. Early identification and management of mental health issues is also critical for improved sleep, health, and performance.       

Barring the presence of an underlying medical condition, a sleep monitor or daily sleep journal for at least 2 weeks can be used to quantify sleep duration. Identifying the optimal amount of sleep on an individual basis may be difficult, but at a minimum, adult and youth who demonstrate an average sleep of less than 7 or 8 hours, respectively, likely warrant additional evaluation to identify their specific sleep barriers. Those individuals experiencing the negative effects of insufficient sleep should implement the sleep hygiene techniques listed below and gradually extend their sleep by 30 to 60 min per night, monitoring for improvements in daytime energy and alertness.

Proper sleep hygiene is important for everyone, including a proper sleep environment and schedule. Sleeping environments should be comfortable, cool, dark, without electronic devices, and with minimal ambient noise or distraction. Consistent sleep and wake times should be established and incorporate a 30 to 60 min period of quiet relaxation before bedtime that can help facilitate sleep onset. The use of electronic devices is thought to suppress natural melatonin production and interfere with sleep, therefore restriction for at least 1 hour before bedtime should be considered. Intake of caffeine or other stimulants should be limited to the morning hours, and alcohol and nicotine should be avoided due to their disruptive effects on sleep.

If your performance isn’t up to the standard you wish to achieve or are experiencing fatigue or pain before or after a workout, book in to see a Physiotherapist or Exercise Physiologist at Back in Motion Aspendale Gardens by calling 9580 1985 or online.