How lack of sleep affects athletes

It is a well-known fact, physical performance, sleep, and mental health are connected for athletes. Recent studies also confirmed a connection between the lack of sleep (or referred to as “sleep deprivation”), harming both the effects of someone’s physical state and mental health.

What is even more impressive was that it was found to have an even worse for athletes, due to them having to deal with other unique stressors.

It is despite the sizeable growing amount of research that demonstrates the positive relationship that occurs between sleep and optimal performance. It is still for many athletes; they continue to suffer from low sleep quantity and quality.

Although some of this insufficient sleep, mainly found among athletes, could be due to their scheduling constraints. Including any travel that is required, as well as on top of the academic demands for college students. They find that sleep is then given a low priority due to these constraints. 

Additionally, it is also due to the overall lack and awareness of the importance of sleep when an athlete is trying to optimize their athletic performance. – how many times do you hear the term “ rest and recovery “ getting a “bad rap” concerning sports participation.

The Science of Sleep

The science behind the lack of quality sleep in athletes occurs due to the deprivation of the athlete having had enough Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage sleep. REM is one of 4 stages of sleep. It is during this sleep stage that we are responsible for learning the new information we received that day. In addition to providing that feeling of refreshment, you get after a good night’s sleep.

During the REM stage in our sleep, our bodies provide you with the emotional and cognitive benefits you need. When sufficient REM sleep occurs, they feel emotionally balanced—enabling them to regulate emotions better, ensuring sound judgments.

During interrupted sleep stages, it is REM sleep, which is most often the one forgone. This is due to this being the last stage in the four stages that occur during sleep. Being the 4th  and last sleep cycle is impossible to go back to without a full sleep cycle, having to repeat itself and starting all over again. 

Therefore, an athlete will face both physical and mental setbacks when they do not have enough REM sleep.

The list of Physical Challenges Associated with Sleep Deprivation

The physical challenges associated with sleep deprivation in athletes include:

A. decreases in aspects of athletic performance (e.g., speed, endurance, and muscle strength)

B. decreases in neurocognitive function (e.g., attention and memory)

C. compromised physical health (e.g., illness and injury risk, and weight maintenance). 

In fact, in a recent study conducted by Milewski et al. (2014),  results indicated that athletes who slept on average less than 8 hours per night were 1.7 times more likely to have had an injury than athletes who slept for more than 8 hours per night. The research was provided by Minnesota Sleep Society.

Mental Health Challenges Associated with Sleep Deprivation

There are mental health factors associated with sleep deprivation in athletes, including:

a. An increase in feelings of irritability & stress. Leading to frustration and anger. With a greater prevalence of adverse reactions when something doesn’t go well.

b. Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are caused and also prolonged in some cases by the chronic deprivation of sleep

c. Many mental health conditions are due to a chronic lack of sleep.  To name a few, PTSD post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and OCD-obsessive-compulsive disorder. These only being a few of the most well-known conditions. The list is, in fact, much longer.

Strategies that will Improve Athlete’s Sleep

The following strategies will help athletes have and take better control of their sleep:

a. Create a daily plan. Schedule adequate sleep into your day/night.

b. Follow a post-workout/competition routine for rest and recovery. 

c. By following a regular bedtime and wake up time. Your body craves consistency.

d. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, etc. –specifically close to bedtime

e. As much exposure to natural light as possible – typically during any winter months, especially for any “indoor” venue athletes.

f. Become self-aware by doing daily meditation or relaxation routine before bed.

 g. No use of electronics/ TV etc. in your bedroom

A note on sleep disorders:  This article does not seek to address or diagnose sleep disorders. Should you suspect you have any sleeping disorders such as apnea and any other sleep disorders. You will be required to seek medical intervention and should get diagnosed by a physician and need to seek medical attention. Links to research and information on stats from the Minnesota Sleep Society

Should you find yourself in need of help with your sleep then you can always try my An Athlete’s Sleep Guide. Or alternatively, I offer 15 min introductory calls where we can chat about your sleep concerns and I can explain more about myself and how I work. We can discuss which program would be best suited to you and your current needs while we find out if we would be a good fit to work together on improving your sleep to match the rest of your work and training ethos. Book this now by click here