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Benefits of sleep for performance and recovery

Published: 16 May 2018

Why is sleep important for injury recovery?

Sleep is so important that in the last 10 years alone there has been a 4000 per cent (we're not overexaggerating) increase in scientific research on sleep science.

This increase likely stems from approximately 52 per cent of team sport athletes reporting sleeping difficulties over the course of a season. Getting fewer than eight hours of sleep per night was associated with almost twice the risk of injury than more than eight hours of sleep over a 21-month period.

Unbelievably almost 60 per cent of team sport athletes report NOT using any strategy to alter the negative effects of lost sleep.

Benefits of sleep for althletes

If you wanted a significant advantage over the competition, you just found it! So how do alterations in sleep effect athletes?

Scientific research has identified multiple changes in performance for athletes who don't get enough sleep or who have broken sleep, including:

Decreased jump power (and therefore jump height)
Reduction in exercise capacity (being unable to run as long – or having to work harder to complete the same amount of “work”)
Reductions in ability to adapt to training stimulus
Decreased ability to build muscle and cardiovascular fitness
Decreased ability to develop skills (like shooting technique / accuracy)
Reductions in reaction time, decision making and memory
Slowed recovery from injury
Reductions in academic performance

Simply, lack of quality sleep reduces physical and mental performance. Read more about how sleep impacts injury recovery.

What impacts our ability to sleep?

Research (and common sense) suggests that athletes are exposed to multiple factors that affect sleep:

Travel (even as little as 1-3 hours can negatively influence sleep)
Exercise late in the day (particularly after 8pm)
Repeated exercise exposure (multiple games / trainings / tryouts / school sports days / double headers etc) in short proximity to each other

These all tend to increase the demand of both the body and brain of an athlete. Adding the stresses of winning and losing, an individual’s performance, and external life and social stresses, you have overload that limits one’s ability to gain quality sleep.

How does sleep work?

But before we dive into how to improve sleep, we should know the basics.

Sleep occurs in stages. These are called NREM (stages 1-4), and REM (stage 5).

As you sleep, you progress through each of these stages (called a sleep cycle), with different brain and bodily functions occurring as you go. Each cycle lasts about 90 to 120 minutes. During these cycles your body undergoes recovery, maintenance and adaptation, with each stage of sleep focusing on different bodily qualities.

As a product of this, if you don’t complete several sleep cycles during your bedtime you will miss a key opportunity for your body to recover, adapt and improve from your training the day before.

Now onto the good stuff!

How do we improve our sleep?

There are three key components of sleep that are changeable, these should be your focus if you plan on improving your sleep:

Sleep Duration – Total time asleep (not pillow time with eyes open)
Sleep Quality – The effectiveness of your sleep
Sleep Phase – Your actual bed time and associated sleep routine

Any strategy to improve sleep should be target at one or more of these components.

General sleep rules

Classically six to eight hours of sleep is recommended. Increasing this up to 10 hours per night for basketballers has shown performance improvements in sprint speed and shooting accuracy. If you’re increasing physical demands on your body then you’ll need a longer recovery period!

If you know a tough schedule is coming you should be prepared. Make sure everything you can manage while awake is in place, including adequate hydration and food intake pre and post-game as well as your sleep routine (more on this later). This is particularly important if you know you’re going to be on the road or staying up past your normal bedtime.

Specific intervention #1 - Sleep Hygiene

The definition of hygiene is a practise conducive to the preservation of health. Sleep hygiene is by far the easiest and best way to make improvements in sleep quality. Develop a consistent routine for bed and structure your bedroom environment cleanliness for optimal sleep.

The environment of your bedroom should:

Be cool (19-21 degrees), dark (blinds/curtains closed) and quiet
Technology should be removed (it creates heat and light – blue light is particularly bad)
Be fitted out for the sole purpose of sleep, so avoid creating other stimuli within the bedroom environment

Absolutely no working / studying in bed or watching stimulating visuals (including TV) in bed!

Your sleep routine should:

Include approximately 30 minutes of wind-down time where:

You avoid exposure to bright lights – particularly TV, Smartphones, Computers or any other blue lights
You complete any remaining physical hygiene – eg. cleaning you teeth

A consistent bed and wake time is classically recommended.

Other considerations to ensure a good night's sleep:

Using relaxation techniques is recommended if you are alert or aroused prior to bedtime
Avoid sugar and caffeine drinks late in the day
Avoid watching the clock – particularly if it is brightly lit
Organise as much of your next day as possible before bed.
If unable to sleep after 20 to 30 minutess, get out of bed, go and do something boring or calming (avoiding bright lights – including smartphones, TVs and computers), before returning to bed to try again

Specific Intervention #2 Napping

Midday napping is useful for paying back sleep debt and improving short term performance. A 30-minute nap after lunch is currently recommended, particularly if participating in evening matches or training. Be careful though, don’t let napping throw your day to day sleep hygiene out of order. If it will impact your evening sleep then aim to improve other areas of sleep hygiene.

Specific Intervention #3 Sleeping Extension

Sleeping longer to make up for sleep debt is commonly used in the short term when athletes feel tired. However, when it comes to improved performance and sleep, one off increases in sleep have limited benefit.  Scientific evidence currently recommends one to two hours more at most. This is most beneficial if you can do it ongoing for a couple of weeks.

Further reading: Top tips for a good night's sleep
Further reading: Tips for a good night's sleep - for parents! 

Conclusion

Sleep is an often-overlooked sporting performance enhancing tool for the aspiring athlete. Hopefully the above helps you on your journey to athletic supremacy. 

Authors
Brendan Mason, Director and physiotherapist, Back In Motion Aspendale Gardens and Rob Blinkhorn from Back In Motion Hawthorn