The Power of Sleep in Athletic Performance
James Maas, a social psychologist states that “Sleep is food for the brain, sleep is fuel for exercise”. Sleep is included in athlete’s everyday life and several coaches and athletes agree with the importance of feeling fresh and rested for both training and competition. Nevertheless little attention is paid to the athlete’s quantity and quality of sleep, although sleep has an effect on sports performance and the athlete´s overall wellbeing.
How does sleep effect my performance and wellbeing?
In sport, the quality of sleep affects important psycho-physiological factors related to performance. This means that poor sleep can lead to inappropriate attention, decreased ability to process information, poor decision making and poor emotional control.
Furthermore, the quantity of sleep plays a big role in reaching peak performance. A study of college basketball players found that increasing nightly sleep amount resulted in improvements in on-court performance.
Nevertheless sleep is not only important for peak performance, but also the athlete´s daily life benefits from good sleep. Learning is strongly affected by sleep, as researchers found out that people who slept shortly after learning new information were more likely to retrain what they have just learned better than those who had delayed sleep after learning.
Lastly, the athlete’s overall wellbeing is influenced by sleep as well. Sleep deprivation is connected with higher levels of confusion, depression and anger.
What affects my sleep?
There are several aspects influencing sleep. A relaxing, dark, quiet and comfortable environment will increase the chance of experiencing restful and restorative sleep. Here it is also important that the athlete feels safe and limits possibilities to draw attention away from sleeping. Another big aspect is the circadian rhythm or body clock. The body clock coordinates the timing of most physiological and behavioural processes. Some physiological processes have to be turned off for efficient sleep such as the digestive system (heavy meals before going to bed will disrupt sleep). Moreover, there are several physiological aspects as body temperature, muscle tension and respiration have to decrease to encourage sleep.
What can I do to increase my sleep quality and quantity?
1) Do not go to bed until you feel sleepy, because if athletes miss sufficient sleep drives, they will have problems falling asleep (even if they are relaxed and comfortable).
2) Avoid drinking (especially caffeine) and eating before sleep, because digestion and elimination has to be shut down by the body clock to promote sleep. Furthermore caffeine increase sympathetic nervous system activation and inhibits sleep.
3) Engage in relaxation training (breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, body scan meditation) during the day and before sleep, because this reduces arousal that can be used to facilitate sleep. (IMPORTANT: Do not mix your relaxation techniques in training or competition with the ones for falling asleep, because if there is no clear distinction, an athlete may become relaxed and alert while trying to sleep or relaxed and drowsy when trying to perform)
4) Avoid working on unpleasant tasks or thoughts prior to bedtime, because it is helpful to reduce cognitive activity to support falling asleep.
5) Do not engage in in any activity (e.g. watching TV, reading, listening to radio) other than laying in the bed, because athletes need to associate the bed with sleeping, so that their body and mind prepare for sleep, when the athlete went to bed.
Below are some examples of the guided body scan and proggressive muscle relaxation:
About the author:
Dennis is a MSc. of Sport Psychology student in the EMSEP programme at the University of Thessaly in Greece. He loves adventure and finding ways to enhance performance.
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Deliens, G., Gilson, M., Schmitz, R., & Peigneux, P. (2013). Sleep unbinds memories from their emotional context. Cortex, 49, 2221-2228.
Brassington G. S. and Goode C. (2010), Sleep. In Hanrahan, S. J., & Andersen, M. B. (Eds.). Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology: A comprehensive guide for students and practitioners. Routledge.
Mah, C. D., Mah, K. E., Kezirian, E. J., & Dement, W. C. (2011). The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep, 34(7), 943