Sleep and Its Role in Performance

Sometimes we get caught up in time spent training or the sets and reps in the weight room, but fail to look at other aspects that can compliment an athlete’s training. Sleep is often an underrated variable when it comes to performance. Poor sleep has the ability to affect an athlete’s performance for the better or worse.

Sleep plays an incredibly important role in performance and the recovery process. After the stressors of field training and weight room training, the last thing an athlete needs is more stress compiled by lack of quality sleep. The keyword being quality.

Consider two athletes:

Athlete A sleeps 10 hours, but it was very poor quality sleep.

Athlete B sleeps 5 hours, but it was very high quality sleep.

While both sleep times lie outside of the typical seven to nine hours of sleep, Athlete B will commonly feel more rested and prepared to perform at a high level. Even though Athlete B only was able to get 5 hours of sleep, the quality of sleep plays an important factor.

From an anecdotal standpoint, if an athlete gets adequate hours (8+) of sleep, but it’s very poor quality, they will generally feel lethargic regardless of time slept. While a coach can try to set sleep guidelines as to when to sleep and wake, it is quite difficult to tell an athlete that they must get a high quality sleep when even an athlete has somewhat limited control over this due to external factors (stress, anxiety, etc.).

When an athlete is on the road, it may be even harder to manage sleep cycles. Athletes have to deal with long flights in cramped quarters and possible jet-lag from time-zone changes. When athletes travel across time-zones, their circadian rhythms are desynchronized (1). This is somewhat analogous to charging a cell phone at night (the cell phone being your brain). If you forget to plug in your cell phone to your charger for a night, you may find your phone with less-than-optimal battery life the following day. Just as if you were to miss a few hours of sleep (or have poor quality sleep), your brain and body will typically not function at an optimal rate.

When jet-lag is experienced, symptoms abate after the first two or three days following arrival (1). While this may be pertinent to some clubs, other clubs travel so frequently, they are already on a flight back home within this two to three day acclimation period.

Control what you can control. Don’t pay much mind to the things you have little control over, like climate, or even flight times and duration (to an extent). Do the best you can at controlling what you have access to control. Doing so can help relieve some undue travel stress on the athletes.

A few things to consider that may be of benefit:

  • Make sure athletes have similar meals as they would at home.
  • Staying at the same hotel chain on the road can help create a similar sleep environment.
  • In these short travel situations can even be wise to continue to work on your home time-zone schedule as much as possible.

Sleep and sleep quality have an incredible impact on performance. Match and training stress are definitely important to look at, but don’t overlook the non-training stress that athletes may be experiencing on a day to day basis.

References:

1. Reilly, Thomas; Edwards, Ben. “Altered sleep–wake cycles and physical performance in athletes”. Physiology & Behavior. (2007). 90. 274–284

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John Grace is a coach at Athletic Lab Sports Performance Training Center in Cary, NC - USA. John has his CSCS, USAW Level 1 certification, USATF Level 1 certification and has worked as an assistant fitness coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS.