Sleep- How Much Do We Need & How Can It Affect Athletic Performance?

Although we spend half our lives doing it, scientists still aren’t sure exactly how we go to sleep or why nature has decided that all animals need sleep. Sleep is often taken for granted, and is one of the first things we sacrifice when life becomes hectic. Even when life is not brisk, I for one have sacrificed sleep to watch sporting matches, movies and play video games. It is important to realize how vital sleep is to our health, our well-being and our performance. 

Sleep is an essential ingredient for heath. In the following article, I will have a holistic look at sleep. I will attempt to help provide information on what goes on during our sleep, how much sleep we need and why after competitions and in preparation for exams we experience so much trouble with sleep. Sports Medicine expert David Geier draws a correlation between athletic calorie requirements and sleep time. “ Just as athletes need more calories than most people when they’re in training, they need more sleep, too”. 

The importance of sleep for athletes is exacerbated when one looks at what happens inside the body during sleep. Poor quality and quantity of sleep will compromise tissue regeneration, diminish immune and hormonal functioning, increase fatigue as well as weaken cognitive processing and increase risk of injury. Sleep deprivation additionally reduces your body’s ability to store energy (glycogen). Sleep deprivation also has many hormonal implications-increasing levels of stress hormones like cortisol that in term slows down muscle recovery and repair due to a decrease in human growth hormone secretion.

Now that we know that sleep is imperative to our health and performance, lets have a look at how much sleep we need and strategies for improving our sleep patterns.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need about seven to nine hours of sleep a night. However, you and I are both could name many of our family, friends and peers who sleep substantially less than this recommended average. I personally strive to get a minimum of 8.5hrs a night. As I mentioned earlier, this number deteriorate during times of exams and other things alike. 

How do we know whether or not we are getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation is a very common problem that we are often completely oblivious to. If you:

  1. Get less than 8 hours sleep a night
  2. Fall asleep instantly
  3. Need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning

you can consider yourself sleep deprived. Cumulative sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce cardiovascular performance, increase risk of diabetes, slow down cognitive processing (thinking) and impair emotional stability. Sleep deprivation can also increase our perception of fatigue. During exam times, it is interesting to note my sleep patterns and how they correlate with my training sessions. I only had to go back to last month’s organic chemistry midterm to see this effect at work. My training diary exert reads is as follows:

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When I compare this session with a similar workout from a few weeks earlier, it is evident both in my times as well as comments that sleep deprivation plays a role in my performance.

I have collected data from my training diary about hours of sleep before each of the workouts shown above. It becomes clear from the graph that my hours of sleep each night are less leading up to and during exams then they are at other times. Over the 10 day period, I slept a total of 17hours less during my exam period. Although there are many other confounding factors that could have led to the differences in performance- including the design of each workout themselves, it is clear even from the comments alone that sleep has an important relationship with my temperament and performance.

With this being said, should we worry about how much sleep we get before a competition or exam?

I often have trouble sleeping the night before a competition. I become so ‘wired’ the evening before I race. My brain sometimes feels like it is running a race of its own! I am visualizing my race- imagining running the race and responding to different hypothetical situations that may arise. I am thinking about when I am going to eat breakfast. What if the hotel does not have a toaster? AGHHH!
At the 2012 London Olympics, I only got about 6hrs of sleep before my heat, and about 4hrs before my semi and final. In spite of little sleep, I was still able to perform at a very high level. Research supports that one or two poor night’s sleep before a competition or major event will not harm performance in any way- provided that the athlete does not worry about it. Worrying will release stress hormones, which will not only disrupt your bodies homeostasis but also hinder your ability to fall asleep.

Strategies To Get More Sleep

Being in college, it is amazing to see the various strategies my peers use when trying to get more sleep. From napping periodically throughout the day all the way to the extremes of standing under a cold shower for 10min, the creativity always impresses me. But when it comes to the literature on sleep, the evidence supports different strategies. 

I often experience trouble falling to sleep. Once I am asleep, I am fine- but getting to sleep can be difficult. I often spend between 20min to 2hrs fidgeting and rolling around, trying to fall asleep. Often, I find it hard to “switch off”. Sometimes, I feel like I jump into bed and my brain decides to process a million thoughts at once. The folk tales of counting sheep have not been very successful for me- however, other strategies have enjoyed greater success.

Before Bed Strategies

  1. Turn off computers, phones and other electronics. Personally, I put my phone on airplane mode every night before I go to sleep. Also, get rid of your alarm clock. Seeing the time throughout the night will just heighten sleep anxiety- you will worry about how few hours are left before your busy day begins.
  2. Avoid naps longer than 20minutes. When an afternoon slump hits, rather go for a short walk, drink a cold glass of water or Skype a friend.
  3. Go to bed and wake up at about the same time every day. This routine will help acclimatize your ‘body clock’ and keep your brain and body on a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  4. Avoid caffeine after 2pm- this is exceptionally hard for me as a few pieces of chocolate after dinner is so indulging!
  5. Dim the room lights in anticipation for sleep- lowering the lights signals your brain to produce melatonin, the hormone that brings on sleep.
  6. Keep your room slightly cool.
  7. Only use your bed (and optimally bedroom) for sleeping. Avoid watching TV or reading in bed.


In Bed Strategies

  • Focus on breathing and relaxing your body
  • Turn the pillow to the cool side- remove layers of bedding if you are too hot.

I hope that these strategies lead to improved sleep patterns and all the benefits that come with it. Sweet Dreams!