How Sleep Aids in Athletic Performance and Recovery

What do Usain Bolt, Roger Federer and LeBron James all have in common? Apart from being widely regarded as the being the all time best practitioners of their chosen sport that is. I’ll give you a clue, it has something to do with sleep.

They all like to sleep a lot. Yep, world record holder Usain, twenty time grand slam singles champion Roger and fourteen time NBA all star LeBron, are all self-confessed sleep addicts.

Roger Federer is reported to get 12 hours sleep a night. LeBron can’t function without 11 hours, although he splits his sleep between the night and an afternoon nap. Whilst Usain claims never to get less than nine hours a night.

The Lightning Bolt in fact takes his addiction to sleep even further, reportedly the sprinting superstar regularly used napping as an alternative warm up technique before his big races. Snoozing away until within 30 minutes of the starting gun. He did this before winning Olympic golds and breaking world records.

What I am getting at is sleep and athletic performance have a lot in common. Not only that, sleep is essential also to athletic recovery.

Sleep and training

Getting enough sleep before an event is important for all of us, whether you are just going for a jog around the block or attempting to win an audacious open water swim.

To be perfectly honest, quality sleep plays a role in just about every single thing we do as humans. It’s for this reason that sleep has been referred to by experts as the single greatest natural performance enhancer available.

But while it might be vital for us all to get a good night’s kip it takes on a special importance when you start to put your your body under unusual amounts of physical strain – like training for a big race or championship match.

No amount of hours spent training will make you into a top athlete if you’re not well-rested. In reality those long hours in the pool or down the gym are actually doing your body harm, you’re ripping muscle fiber apart. That’s why you ache so much in the morning. it's only when you sleep that the body is able to repair and strengthen.

Training schedules that increase the number of hours spent in the gym or the pool without making a corresponding increase of time for the body to repair itself, are doomed to end in disaster.

What i’m getting at is if you have a big race coming up and you’re looking at how to make time to fit in some extra training laps, don’t you dare thing about cutting back on sleep. That’s the one thing you can’t sacrifice. Divorce the wife and quit your job by all means, but don’t cut out on sleep.

Now, knowing you should be sleeping more and actually doing so are two entirely different things. Fortunately there are some easy steps you can take. Steps such as making sure you what you’re sleeping on is fit for purpose, ditching caffeine in the afternoons and avoiding alcohol before bed. And that’s just for starters.

Risk for injury

Being the best at your chosen sport, be it swimming or golf, has everything to do with consistency. The ability to get out and perform week in week out. And that doesn’t just mean perform in competition, it means being able to perform in training. Talent can only take you so far if you’re constantly injured.

Researchers have shown that one of the most reliable predictors of injury in athletes is how well they sleep. It’s quite simple, athletes who got eight or more hours a night have been shown to get injured far less than athletes who sleep less than eight hours.

Numerous studies, such as this one, have tracked athletes over a season, noting how much they slept a night, say 6, 7 or 8 hours a night. What these studies have shown is there’s a linear relationship that between less sleep and increased risk of injury during a sports event.

There appears to be two clear reasons for this correlation, the first relates to what we’ve already discussed above. Sleep is when our body is able to take a breath and repair itself from the hardships of the day. If these repairs are interrupted then the body is left weak and vulnerable. The result is injury. Simple as that.

The second reason is related to cognitive performance. When we haven’t slept enough our brain is a little bit foggier. It takes an extra split second to react. That extra split second is often the difference between a perfectly timed tackle and injury. Not only that but when we’re lacking energy we have a tendency to try and overcompensate, we push harder than we should, this leads to poor technique. Poor technique leads to injury.

Well, there you have it sports fans – why sleep is vitally important to athletic performance and recovery. If it works legends like Roger, Usain and LeBron then maybe we should pay a little attention. Sweet dreams!

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