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Sleep more to perform better

In the not-too-distant past, I would wake up early a couple times a week to swim with a master’s swim group at 5am.  That 4:20am alarm was something I couldn’t ever seem to get used to.  Though I’m a morning person and enjoy starting my day with a workout and coffee.  There was a big difference in how I felt for the rest of the day if I woke up at 4:20am vs my usual time.  On the rare occasion where, as a parent and physician I can sleep in, I’ve noticed that I feel an additional level of focus and energy.  Although I enjoyed those early morning workouts, if I didn’t get to bed early the night before, I knew there was going to be a price to pay.   With the non-stop responsibilities of life, it can be challenging to get to bed early enough to wind down and get the necessary rest before our alarm goes off the next morning. 

Recent studies have found that athletes commonly don’t get the recommended amount of sleep which can increase their risk of injury.  Whether it’s due to training, stress, academic responsibilities, or travel athletes face challenges with getting enough sleep.  More and more, we are seeing thoughtful athletes and coaches focused on the importance of sleep and recovery.  From total sleep to rem sleep to sleep efficiency, the role of optimal sleep in athletic performance cannot be overstated.  Athletes are utilizing sleep tracking devices and apps to help them monitor and address their sleep and recovery more carefully. 

 Though we commonly take the approach to play better, more training is necessary, what if we change our thinking to the mindset of to play better, more sleep is necessary?  Whether a teenager or a parent of teenagers, we commonly sacrifice sleep for other pursuits.  We get up early for work or school or other activities like early morning training, but maybe we should think more about hitting the snooze button and getting more sleep or make a priority the night before to get to bed earlier.  When it comes to mental and physical performance, the data is indisputable that sleep is a significant performance enhancer.  Let’s look at what studies say about sleep or the lack of it and how it affects our performance.  Studies are increasingly showing that additional time sleeping and optimizing the quality of sleep plays an important role in athletic performance.  Improving sleep has been shown to reduce injury and illness in athletes as well.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 7-9 hours of sleep for adults and 8-10 hours for adolescents nightly for optimal performance.  Athletes rarely get this amount.  In a study of 800 elite South African athletes, nearly 75% of them reported sleeping less than 8 hours.  Increased levels of stress and anxiety around competition have also been associated with impaired sleep quality and duration in athletes.  In a recent study of over 500 male and female Brazilian athletes about sleep before competition, poor sleep quality was an independent predictor of lost competition. In cyclists who had sleep restricted after a hard workout, a study found that they had a 4% decrease in sprint time trial the next day.  In tennis players, a single night of only 5 hours of sleep was associated with a decreased serving accuracy by up to 53%.   In college tennis players, an increase of 1.5 hours of sleep was associated with a 36-41% increase in serving accuracy.  In college male basketball players, an increase from 6.6 to 8.5 hours of sleep per night was associated with a 9% increase in free throw accuracy and a 9.2% increase in three-point field goal percentage. 

When it comes to sleep, injury rates and risk of illness also are affected by lack of sleep.  In a study of middle and high school age athletes, those who slept less than 8 hours per night on average were 70% more likely to report an injury.  In a study of 164 adults monitored for 7 days before being given nasal drops containing a rhinovirus that causes a “cold” illness, the adults who slept on average less than 5 hours per night were 4.5 times as likely to develop an infection from the rhinovirus drops than those who slept 7 hours or more. 

If you’re an athlete looking for additional improvement in your performance at sport, school, or work, its time to view sleep as a significant and safe performance enhancer.  Coaches and parents should talk with their athletes/kids about the importance of sleep and its effect on individual and team success.  At Sports Health Northwest, we want to help you stay healthy, avoid injury, and perform your best.  If you have questions about performance,  connect with us today so we can help you recover from injury and perform at your best.

Author
Dr Westerdahl David Westerdahl MD FAAFP RMSK Sports Medicine Physician and owner Sports Health Northwest, Inc.

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