For elite athletes, sleep is a crucial part of their preparation for sport and an even more important part of their recovery from matches and injury. For amateur and community level athletes, however, it is a frequently overlooked strategy to improve performance and assist in recovery from harm. Most people recover from training and games with simple strategies such as stretching, but many don’t consider how important a good night’s sleep can be.
Research about sleep, recovery and performance shows that monitoring your sleeping habits and being aware of the power of sleep to assist you with rehabilitation and training goals.
The American National Sleep Foundation recommends that the optimal sleep duration is 7-9 hours per night, but sleep quantity is not the only important factor. Sleep quality and timing of sleep are essential components to sleep, and any disturbance to 1 of these three factors can negatively affect the post-exercise recovery process
It is important to recognise that, physiologically, sleep loss impairs, amongst other things, the following:
– Growth hormone release and muscle protein synthesis: This means the ability of the skeletal muscle to adapt and repair itself is reduced, which has a direct impact on training adaptations such as speed, endurance, strength and power, is reduced.
– The learning of new skills and memory: Sleep is crucial for memory consolidation and motor learning. Sport is a constantly evolving process, where not only do you need highly developed physical attributes, but the sport also requires high levels of motor learning, skill acquisition, strategy, decision-making, cognition and memory to carry out tasks which ultimately influence performance.
In elite and sub-elite athletes late night training or late night games are common, and this has been shown to negatively affect sleep duration and quality in professional soccer players when compared to training days and day matches. Reasons for this have been postulated as:
– Bright lights: Light has an inverse relationship with the sleep hormone melatonin; therefore light/artificial light may suppress melatonin and negatively affect sleep.
– 79% of professional soccer players also reported using smartphones, watching TV, using laptops before sleep which all have artificial lighting that reinforces the above point.
– Furthermore, technology use before sleep may not allow the athlete to “switch-off” before bed, with frequent users of social media reporting almost 1 hour per night less sleep.
– Caffeine is frequently used by athletes to enhance stamina, mental acuity and performance during games, but physiologically, caffeine inhibits melatonin secretion thus affecting sleep behaviour.
In regards to sporting performance, studied of sleep habits have uncovered some interesting things:
– A group of basketball players were encouraged to increase their sleeping habits from an average of 6.5hrs per night to 8.5hours per night. At the end of the 7-week trial; speed tests rose by 5%, free throw accuracy increased by 9% and 3-point accuracy improved by 9%.
– Tennis players were encouraged to increase sleep duration by 2 hours per night, which improved their serving accuracy by 5% over the trial period.
Finally, the effect of sleep quality before a concussion and its effect on post-concussion symptoms is something that we should all be aware of:
– Adolescent and young athletes (mean age 17yrs) with poor sleep behaviour (difficulty falling to sleep, sleeping less than usual) before sustaining a concussion were compared against those who had good sleep routine before the concussion.
– The poor sleep group performed significantly worse on visual memory, verbal memory and reaction time compared to the controls, in particularly within the first 2-5 days post-concussion, with reaction time being significantly slower up to 14 days after the concussion.
– In regards to concussive and sleep-related symptoms, the poor sleep group consistently showed increased symptoms during the first 14 days post-concussion.
– Conclusion: those athletes with pre-injury sleep difficulties performed worse on neurocognitive tests and had worse concussive symptoms after the injury, compared to those athletes that did not have poor sleep problems, especially reaction time tests up to 14 days post-concussion.
In summary, sleep behaviours have a significant effect on injury recovery, training adaptation, neuro-cognition and the ability to perform sport at an optimum level.
Here are simple strategies recommended to optimise your sleep patterns:
1) Get between 7 and 9 hours per night and consider naps during the day if you get less than 7 hours sleep per night
2) Sleep in a cool (but not cold), dark room
3) Avoid using electronics or personal devices in bedroom
4) Avoid technology use for the final hour before bed
5) Reduce your caffeine intake after lunch, and minimise alcohol at night