What can sleep really do to improve performance?

When it comes to sports, sleep is the Most Valuable Player

Between Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics, the Tour de France, the Open Championship and the British Lions’ South African tour, we are spoilt for sports this summer.

Of course, summer is already a time when a lot of people decide to put more effort into their health and fitness regime, but with so much sporting excitement on the horizon, this year many of us are likely feeling the itch to amp up our fitness game and get in on the action.

When it comes to your fitness, however, it’s not simply a matter of turning up and doing the work. Your body needs rest as well as rigorous exercise, and that’s why sleep is a vital factor in improving your athletic performance.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the relationship between sleep and sports.

Why do athletes (and average Joes) need sleep?

One of sleep’s essential functions is to allow your heart to rest and your cells and tissue to rapid. This is vital in helping your body recover from physical exertion. Without sleep, your body has no chance to heal and grow stronger.

As you progress through the different stages of sleep, your heart rate and breathing will also change, which helps to promote cardiovascular health. Your body produces cytokines while you sleep too, which are hormones that help the immune system fight off infections and illness.

But the benefits of sleep aren’t just physical. Sleep helps us retain and consolidate memories, which is important when it comes to learning and remember new athletic skills. It also helps with cognitive processing, and is important when it comes to preventing irritability, reducing depression and keeping energy levels high.

What the research says

There have been several studies into the impact of sleep on sports performance, demonstrating just how important it is. One study conducted by Stanford found that male basketball players ran faster after extending their sleep to 10 hours a night. What’s more, their shooting improved by at least 9%, and all participants reported better physical and mental wellbeing overall.

Another study, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, found that both male and female swimmers who extended their sleep to 10 hours a night saw improved kick strokes, turn times, reaction times and overall swim speed. Other studies have also found similar results for netball and tennis players, with reports of greater speed, accuracy, energy levels and overall performance when sleep is made a priority.

Sleep deprivation and injury

It’s not just about the benefits of good sleep, however. For athletes, positive sleep hygiene is also importance for avoiding the various negative factors associated with sleep deprivation.

Because your body struggles to recover without sleep – and your energy levels and focus are both compromised – sleep deprivation greatly increases the risk of injury for athletes attempting to power through their tiredness. Sleep deprivation is also associated with quicker exhaustion, decreased reaction times, and a greater risk of illness or immunosuppression.

Executive functions are also impacted by sleep, meaning it can be more difficult to retain information, learn, and make decisions. Athletes often need to make smart decisions very quickly in the heat of a game, and the mental suppression associated with sleep deprivation can be a huge hindrance to this.

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