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How Sleep Can Affect Athletic Performance

Jun 25, 2019 10:13 PM EDT
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America is not getting enough sleep. Thanks to the stress of work as well as our willingness to distract ourselves with screens, the CDC found in 2016 that 1 in 3 Americans is getting less than the seven hours of recommended sleep. And for athletes, seven hours is nowhere near enough. Professional athletes are growing more interested in the importance of sleep, with some of the top athletes sleeping more than 10 hours per day.

You may not need or even be able to sleep that much, but the odds are that an athlete like you needs more sleep than you are already getting. While we know sleep is important, here are some particular reasons why athletes need more than usual.

Rest and Strengthening

You may have had a good day lifting weights or going on a long run, confident that the exercise has made you stronger. But in fact, you are actually weaker immediately after that exercise session, as the exercise causes minor tears in your muscles. When you rest, your body repairs the tears and strengthens your muscles.

But if you do not rest and sleep, your body will not have time to repair the tears completely. This means that you will not get the full benefits of your workout and increase the risk of injury as your body has to deal with more and more muscle tears.

Even if you do not intend to increase the amount of time you spend sleeping, seriously consider setting a regime of rest. Far too many athletes refuse to take a rest or recovery day out of fear of looking like a quitter, but rest is needed to get the most out of exercise.

Reaction Time

When you are tired, you do not think clearly. While everyone knows that, you may not realize just how much your cognitive abilities and reaction times are slowed by a lack of sleep. A study reported by the National Sleep Foundation compared 49 West Point cadets, deprived 21 of them from sleep, and found that those 21 cadets were significantly less accurate and had slower reaction times. Other studies have compared the effects of sleep deprivation to having multiple alcoholic drinks.

There are differences between being drunk and being sleep-deprived, but the simple reality is that a tired athlete cannot think and react as quickly. And even being off by a few seconds or inches can be the difference between victory and defeat in sports.

Mental Performance

When we are tired, we get cranky. And sleep researcher have noted for decades that those deprived of sleep for long periods can become more aggressive and less willing to sit and think.

In sports, these traits come with multiple downsides. Tired athletes will be less willing to listen to a coach, take in their advice, and improve their game. Furthermore, a more aggressive, tired athlete will become impatient and will inevitably rush things. He takes a shot too quickly, or is too quick to swing his bat at the ball because his body just wants to get things over with and go back to sleep. And because it is harder to plan long-term when tired, you may be unable to foresee a golden opportunity.

Healing Injuries

We sleep more when we are sick or injured for a reason. This is why caregivers for seniors recommend it for seniors. As noted above, the body during sleep makes muscular repairs, but it also strengthens the immune system, removes toxins from the body, and create a stronger, healthier body which can better take the abuse of exercise and sports. If a body does not have enough time to heal, the end result are small, lingering injuries which can turn to something more traumatic.

The result is that more sleep can lengthen your athletic peak. Just look at LeBron James, who sleeps 12 hours per day and is still playing at a MVP level after almost 15 years in the NBA. And while LeBron is an exceptional case, sleeping role will heal your injuries and keep you on the field for longer.

Performance Enhancement

Less sleep leads to worse performance, but does more sleep lead to better performance? The answer, as The Atlantic examines, turns out to be a resounding yes. A study conducted with the Stanford men's basketball team found that by increasing their amount of sleep from an average of 6.5 hour to 8.5 hours a night, their shooting had improved by 13 percent. That is the sort of improvement which normally takes years of intense practice, and yet Stanford accomplished it with just a few extra hours of sleep.

That study in and of itself should make clear the benefits of sleep as well as the consequences of sleep deprivation. Sleep plays a critical role in every part of our body and making sure that we stay at the top of our athletic conditioning. So after reading this article, shut down your screen and lie down for a bit. Your body and your coach will thank you.

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