Understanding, discussion and monitoring of sleep for performance has increased significantly in performance circles. It may appear to be a minor factor in human existence, because obviously we all need to sleep, but what is becoming apparent is that the importance of sleep is slowly becoming clearer. In general sleep contributes to optimal human health; physical, mental and emotional. And the evidence for the detrimental effects of sleep loss continues to grow. To name but a few impairments of sleep loss, which is considered more than two successive nights of <7 hours sleep, contributes to impaired cognitive function including reductions in the ability to consolidate memory and learn new information, affects emotional stability and mental well being, disrupts growth and repair of cells (which is particularly important for athletes) and can affect systemic functions such as immune responses and blood glucose regulation. 

To put it straight, lack of sleep can make you dumber, angrier, fatter and sicker. Not a great outcome from something so simple. So what does this mean for athletes and performance? It means that sleep is a key area that needs to be addressed. And this is further complicated with travel, time zones and changing competition and training schedules, such as morning or late night fixtures. 

A 2021 narrative review by Walsh et al, discusses the implications of managing sleep in athletes and gives some basic tips on how to assess and implement sleep strategies around training and competition.

The review highlights that sleep requirements are individual but what is clear is that approximately 7 hours is the minimum requirement. Matt Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that this should be a minimum of 8 hours for everyone. In his best selling book, Why We Sleep, he adamantly highlights that those who believe that they can survive off less sleep are doing just that, surviving. He demonstrates that the research is clear, there are very few people who operate anywhere near their optimal potential with less than 8 hours of sleep a night. And in athletes, regularly doing so is likely to lead to terrible consequences.  However in athletic populations it is often difficult to manage sleep due to changing schedules and travel.

Whether it is early morning training sessions, late matches or jet lag, sleep disturbances are commonplace for athletes. And that is before we even discuss competition anxiety before the big game or race, and the effects of heavy training loads.  

So what can be done? 

Educating athletes, coaches and staff and assessing sleep is a key area highlighted by Walsh et al. The review suggests that even short education sessions can have an impact. These sessions would aim to highlight the importance of 8 hours or more, understand the signs of poor sleep (poor quality such as poor ability to fall asleep, frequent waking, reduced volume of sleep, waking feeling un-refreshed and daytime sleepiness) adjusting schedules or setting your circadian rhythm based on where and when you are required to perform at your best. Another factor that they highlight is that leading up to competitions where sleep may be depleted banking sleep using naps may have significant merit. 

Understanding the signs of poor sleep may give clues also to current training or readiness status. Overreaching periods of intense training or competition often increases risk of poor sleep and is associated with immune function reductions and illness. For many athletes poor sleep is often a sign that they are overreaching and may be in a state of fatigue. Obviously poor sleep quality will only compound this fatigue and the risk of injury or illness is likely to increase. 

So what can be done to improve sleep?

Whether it be due to general sleep disturbances (insomnia unrelated to sport), overreaching, scheduling or jet lag there are a number of interventions that are likely to help with sleep quality. 

  1. Have a bedtime routine.
    1. Go to bed and wake at a similar time. 
    2. Do not overeat too close to sleep time and avoid stimulants such as caffeine.
    3. Avoid exposure to bright light close (1 hour before) to bed including screen time
    4. Have room temperature slightly cooler than warmer
    5. Have comfortable and clean sleep environment (pillow, air circulation etc)
  2. Get into the rhythm
    1. When traveling rehearse training and playing times prior to travel and competition to mimic playing time
    2. Use light exposure or melatonin (seek advice from a professional) to assist with getting into this time zone
    3. Adjust sleep cycles based on the time zone a few days out from travel. The same can be done with eating times. 
    4. Cold exposure such as cold showers is also suggested to improve sleepiness prior to bed so may be used to induce increased likelihood of falling asleep when in an unaccustomed schedule or post competition.
  3. Bank Sleep
    1. Where possible take naps in the early afternoon (after lunch sleepiness is a good time) to bank sleep if there is a chance your sleep is likely to be reduced, but avoid these being in the late afternoon as this is likely to reduce sleep pressure in the evening. 

With these items in mind establishing these habits consistently is likely to improve recovery and performance for all athletes and should be a major consideration throughout the training and competition year. 

To access the review head to : https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/55/7/356.abstract