Work hard. Play hard. Rest easy and recover well.
All athletes know how much a bad night’s sleep can impact on your performance. Feeling sluggish and slow in your reflexes can be hugely detrimental when you’re out on the field of play or in your lane. Even one night of poor sleep can lead to fatigue, irritability, confusion and a lack of focus. All of this can increase your chances of injury while playing.
Recovery is just as important to athletic performance as regular practice, and sleep is a vital part of that. We’re going to take a closer look at the relationship between sleep and effective recovery after a game.
Why is sleep so important for sports recovery?
Everybody requires sleep in order to feel restored and function at their best the next day. However, for athletes, the stakes are even higher.
In one Stanford study of men’s basketball players, participants who slept longer were found to run faster (0.7 seconds faster over 95 yards) and show greater accuracy when it came to shooting (a 9% improvement in both free throw and 3-point baskets). This indicated an impressive improvement in hand-eye coordination. The athletes also reported improved physical and mental wellbeing. In another study, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, male and female swimmers were shown to swim faster (8% improvement in 15m speed) and enjoy faster reaction times (20% improvement off the block) when they slept for longer.
A 2015 study published in Physiology & Behaviour looked at the impact of better and longer sleep on male and female tennis players. When players increased their sleep to at least nine hours a night, the accuracy of their serves increased from 36% to 42%. They also experienced less sleeplessness by making more time for quality rest.
Good sleep and good athletic performance go hand in hand. Physical exhaustion can stop you performing at your best, while the lack of focus associated with sleeplessness can slow reaction times and cause your play quality to suffer.
The mental impact of sleep loss
Sleep is about much more than staving off tiredness. It can also impact your mental health.
Sleep is essential for helping us retain and consolidate memories. When athletes practice new skills and techniques, sleep helps them form the memories necessary to remember their practices. Without sleep, the pathways to the brain that allow you to learn and make memories cannot be maintained.
We need sleep for cognitive function. The decline in cognitive processing which is associated with sleep can have adverse effects on athletes who rely on decision making and adapting to situations in their play. Chronic sleep loss can also lead to a greater risk of mental health concerns like depression, which can severely impact your motivation to practice as well as damaging your health overall.
The long term impacts of sleep loss
The physical effects of chronic sleeplessness are just as concerning as the mental ones, for athletes and non-athletes alike.
Sleep allows your heart to rest as well as your body and mind. Overnight, cells and tissues repair, helping your body recover from physical exertions, and your cardiovascular health is supported by the changing heart rates and breathing patterns involved in the different stages of sleep.
Sleeplessness can increase your risk of serious health concerns like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and stroke. While we sleep, our bodies produce cytokines which are hormones that help our immune systems fight off infections.
Injury is a key concern for many athletes, and this is also something which relies heavily on sleep. Not only can a good sleep pattern support your body as it recovers from injury, but it can also make your chances of suffering an injury significantly lower. In a study published in the Journal of Paediatric Orthopaedics, athletic participants of high school age were shown to experience increased rates of injury when chronic lack of sleep was a factor. By prioritising sleep, athletes can support both their performance and their health overall.