How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance

By Laird Harrison

During a week of canoeing in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, something odd happened. I had only a thin inflatable pad between me and the rocks and roots. My mosquito bites itched. And some of my companions snored.

But getting away from the hum and glow of civilization relaxed me so much that I slept better than in my comfortable bed at home. In the mornings, I was ready to paddle a canoe and haul it on long portages.

It turns out I’m not alone. One new study out in the past week shows that access to nature improves sleep (at least for men.)  Another shows that people who sleep more get fewer colds.

And yes,  sleep improves athletic performance, but not in the way you might think.

Sleep Deprivation and Sports Performance

Since this newsletter is about sports performance, let’s look at the last point first.  I assumed that getting more sleep meant more time for muscles to recover.

But a careful review of the research so far shows the picture is much more complicated than that.

It’s true that going for a long time without sleep – say 36 hours in a row — hurts your athletic performance. You can’t run as far or as fast, or jump as high, for example.

Sleep Restriction and Sports Performance

But most studies don’t show an effect on strength or endurance in people who have their sleep interrupted a few times. They do show an effect on mental performance – reaction times and decision-making for example.

So if you play a ball-sport, such as tennis, basketball or soccer, having a few bad nights could affect you more than if you’re a runner, swimmer or cyclist.

Sleeping badly, even for a night or two, can affect your mood as well. Personally, I just don’t feel like working out when I don’t get enough z’s.

Exercise and Sleep

The relationship of sleep and exercise works the other way, too. In general, people who exercise more sleep better. But really intense workouts, especially early in the morning can disrupt your sleep. And so can a feeling of tension about an impending athletic event.

Finally there are the long-term effects to consider. People who sleep more are less likely to get chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and clogged arteries. These can ultimately affect your athletic ability… as well as shortening your life.

And now we know that  people who get six hours of sleep per night or less are four times more likely to catch a cold.

So what can you do if you’re not sleeping well? Here are some tips researched for elite soccer players that really apply to almost anyone:

How to Sleep Better

  • Exercise. Work out frequently, but not very early in the morning and not to the point of exhaustion.
  • Unplug. Turn off your computer, your phone, your television and everything else with a screen at least an hour before bed.
  • Detox. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening
  • Schedule. Stick to a regular bedtime.
  • Nap. Take short snoozes of 5-30 minutes in the afternoon, but not in the late evening.
  • Naturalize. Go for a long canoe trip ride in the boundary waters of Minnesota.

OK, it doesn’t have to be the Boundary Waters. Any sort of nature will do. Enjoy the grass, the trees, the sky. Enjoy darkness wherever you can find it.

Photo by Laird Harrison. All rights reserved

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