Sleep and Sport - Why Is Sleep Crucial for Athletes?

We all know the importance of sleep and should prioritize getting enough of it. But did you know that getting optimal sleep can dramatically affect the speed at which the brain reacts to stimuli? Whilst that might not be a top priority for most of us, it's crucial for sports professionals whose lives and careers depend on their reaction times.

Key takeaways:
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    Getting enough sleep improves reaction times significantly.
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    Lack of sleep affects performance and recovery time.
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    The international travel and lifestyle of athletes can severely affect their quality of sleep.
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    Sub-optimal sleep increases the risk of injury.

With the recommended 8 hours of sleep, the average reaction time is about 0.25 seconds. With less than six hours, reaction times go down to 0.75 seconds - so the time it takes for your brain to react triples. That's quite a difference.

If you have had little sleep and are reading this, you may not feel particularly affected. But if you are a professional sportsperson, those milliseconds can make a huge difference in your life. That is what makes sleep crucial for athletes. It's why pros like Usain Bolt sleep between eight and ten hours, and Lebron James ensures he gets twelve hours of quality sleep.

The reaction times are only one factor; there are many more reasons why sleep is essential for athletes. Let's dive in.

Why is sleep so important for athletes?

We have covered that lack of sleep significantly affects reaction time. But in what other ways does the lack of sleep affect the body?

It affects memory and learning abilities - Imagine that you have a "save" button in your brain - the more you sleep, the better your "save" button function works. Your skills form faster, and your body can remember new movements with greater proficiency.

Sleep affects the risk of injury - Sleeping for six or fewer hours doubles your risk of injury.

Inflammatory reactions - The body can become inflamed after a physically demanding sport. For example, a pitcher's hand will swell after a baseball game, the shoulder of a quarter-back will be inflamed, and the hands of basketball players might swell after an intense match. Getting enough high-quality sleep improves the body's ability to deal with inflammation, producing faster healing and recovery rates.

Energy replenishment - Without enough sleep, it's harder for your body to remove toxins and repair tissue damage. It also slows down productivity and performance.

Hormone production - Getting optimal sleep gives the body the time it needs to produce an adequate supply of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.

Mental health - Lack of sleep can negatively affect your mood and overall emotional state. Decision-making becomes based on emotional choices rather than rational thought.

Do athletes find it hard to get a good night's sleep?

As we can see, lack of sleep greatly influences the body. But, the lifestyle of a professional athlete isn't always conducive to having a regular sleeping pattern; several factors can contribute to less than optimal sleep for the pros.

Jetlag - The continuous trips to different tournaments and games often cause jet lag and overall draining of energy.

High doses of caffeine - Various pre-workout and after-workout supplements and drinks are usually very high in caffeine, affecting the ability to fall asleep.

Anxiety and stress - Athletes are in a near-constant state of competition. They are more likely to feel stressed and anxious before and after their performance.

Blue light and loud noises - Athletes are often surrounded by screens and loud noise from crowds and stadium music. The screens give off unnatural blue light, stimulating the brain and affecting sleep quality. Loud noise can overstimulate the nervous system, preventing it from entering a calm state before sleep.

What can teams do to improve an athlete's rest?

Now you understand why sleep is so crucial for athletic performance but is it being prioritized enough in the world of sports?

There is evidence that sleep is being taken more seriously by the sporting community. Some national teams used sleep specialists to boost athletes' performance in the 2016 RIO Olympic games.

Having a sleep specialist on the team should become the new normal. If a doctor or psychologist is part of the athlete's staff, in my opinion, there should be a sleep specialist too. With competitions such as the Olympics, an athlete's form cannot be improved right before the games start. So the primary focus should be on quality rest, recovery, and mental preparation for the competition.

What happens when sleep is not prioritized?

Sadly, there are many examples where after a lost match, as a punishment, the coach decides to force the team to train early in the morning. As a result, the athletes are tired and not well rested. The training is ineffective and increases the likelihood of injuries.

There are progressive organizations in Lithuania, such as Kauno Zalgiris, which focuses on rest and sleep and educates both the main and the youth basketball teams. I was one of the tutors who taught them the importance of sleep and methodologies to improve their resting time.

What is chronotype training, and what does it have to do with sleep?

Some organizations go the extra step and adjust the training time to the chronotypes of the athletes. You might be asking what a chronotype is and why it’s important?

Believe it or not – your body has been programmed to function much better at certain times of the day than others. Based on general morning or evening preferences and performance, different people fall into classifications called "Chronotypes."

Reaction times and even an athlete's speed might differ depending on their chronotype.

Knowing your chronotype is useful even if you are not an athlete. It will help you understand the optimal time to sleep, get up, consume caffeine, exercise, and eat.

What can athletes do to improve the quality of their rest?

The best way to improve sleep is to design and develop a healthy 'sleep hygiene' routine.

And there is a simple Sleep Hygiene Strategy (SHS) that everyone, especially athletes, should follow.

1. Bedroom optimization

  • Have a comfortable mattress and pillow.
  • Set a cool yet comfortable temperature in the room.
  • Block out light.
  • Keep noise to the bare minimum. Silence is preferable.

2. Setting a sleep schedule and nightly routine

  • Have a fixed wake-up time.
  • Prioritize sleep.
  • Don't have too many naps.
  • Give yourself at least 30 minutes to wind down before getting into bed.
  • Dim your lights.
  • Unplug from electronics.
  • Test methods of relaxation, such as guided meditation.

3. Adopting healthy daylight habits

  • Get daylight exposure.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Be physically active.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption.
  • Don't eat too late into the evening.

As you can see, sleep should never be overlooked, and it's especially crucial for an athlete. A couple of hours less sleep could result in a lost game or, in some cases, a serious injury.