a white women in a grey tank top stretches upwards in her bed
Credit: Bruce Mars via Unsplash

Sleep more, score more: the importance of sleep in performance sport

By Tristan Rees

From up to five naps a day to specially designed memory foam pillows and mattresses, professional athletes are focused on rest and recovery more than ever before.

Recent studies have claimed that getting insufficient sleep, which is generally considered fewer than seven hours a night, can lead to ample physical and psychological health issues. In fact, lack of sufficient sleep can be a significant cause of chronic illnesses and is one of the leading health concerns caused by the modern-day lifestyle. With humans more considerate of their bodies than ever and the desire to maintain an astutely active lifestyle, sleep appears to be an aspect of recovery people often fail to consider. Sleep blatantly affects your mood, impacts your cognitive capabilities and efficient activity levels, but how does sleep affect athletic performance?

As one might assume, research has shown that improper sleep can severely hinder athletic performance. It is a vital component for recovery between workouts and match days. When professional athletes are training multiple times a day, recovery between sessions becomes all the more important. The recovery that sleep brings not only allows them to train at a higher level but it also aids in avoiding the burdens of injury and illness. Using sleep screening, studies have shown that sleep is vital for optimal physiological recovery. Sleeping allows for the muscles to repair and grow, which means they are becoming conditioned to take more strain at the next workout. This is what ultimately improves performance. Therefore without proper sleep, all the training an athlete does could be wasted. 

While proper sleep is essential to physical recovery, it has become increasingly hard to achieve. According to research, sleep issues such as insomnia are some of the most commonly raised amongst medical professionals in the sporting world. In general, sleep and rest are not taken seriously in modern day lifestyles and those who sleep more are considered lazy. The incessant “grind” mentality often fetishises improper sleep as a marker of how hardworking someone is. Athletes tend to be prone to this kind of thinking as much of their sporting ability comes down to how hard they push their bodies. In addition to these barriers, athletes face further obstacles in achieving proper sleep. These include training and competition schedules which see athletes having to complete multiple work out sessions  or compete late at night. The physical and mental toll of late-night competition makes getting to sleep afterwards a real challenge. Stress is a major contributor to these issues. The pressure of competing at a high level, with potentially financial burdens for some, and perhaps other work or academic demands, can lead many to suffer from stress which affects sleep quality. And as sleep is so important for performance, many can become stuck in a downward spiral of stress leading to poor sleep which in turn affects their ability to compete which will bring about more stress. These problems can quickly lead to athletes overtraining and essentially burning out. 

Therefore, there are many reasons athletes are looking to improve their sleep to enhance their performance. Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo claims to nap five times a day and basketball icon Lebron James stated that he gets upwards of 12 hours a night. Over the past decade, sports teams have employed a host of professionals to ensure their players receive the requisite number of hours of sleep to perform at the highest level. But what methods or techniques do they use to get the best rest?

The most common technique used to improve sleep is simply keeping structured and regular sleeping hours.  The best athletes go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day. This programs their bodies to be ready to sleep each night. In addition to this, a major emphasis is placed on making sure their beds are as comfortable as possible. Professional athletes are encouraged to invest in specialised mattresses and pillows to suit an individual’s specific needs. The professional cycling team, Ineos Grenadiers, carry around personalised memory foam mattresses and pillows for each of their riders during the Tour de France. During the three-week race, the team brings the mattresses and pillows into the hotels the cyclists are staying in. 

Another major prohibitor to sleep is mobile phone use. Using a mobile device, or any form of screen late at night can stimulate your mind even when you are in the early stages of sleep, affecting the overall quality of REM sleep. This is especially true if the content you are looking at is stress-inducing. Devices also emit blue light which is the type of light that the sun emits. Once the sun has gone down but you continue to be exposed to blue light via your phone or laptop, you are sending signals to your brain saying that it is not time to sleep yet. Many athletes are now avoiding their phones late at night to improve their sleep and consequently their performance. 

These sleep-promoting habits are all part of the athlete’s dedication to their performance. Coupled with other techniques brought in by the sleep specialists, such as mediation, mindfulness, or yoga, athletes are now in control of almost all aspects of their lifestyles. Sleep is now considered a cornerstone of their regime. At the highest level, sporting competitions are decided by the finest of margins. Thus, an athlete’s ability is testament to their dedication to all aspects of their lifestyle.


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