Sleep, physical performance and mental health are closely connected for athletes. Recent studies have confirmed that lack of sleep or “sleep deprivation” negatively affects one’s physical state and mental health, and these findings have indicated that it may be worse for athletes, as they deal with other unique stressors. 

Despite a growing body of research demonstrating a positive relationship between sleep and optimal performance, athletes often have low sleep quality and quantity. Insufficient sleep among athletes may be due to scheduling constraints, travel, academic demands for college students, and the low priority given to sleep relative to these constraints.  Additionally, there is an overall lack of awareness of the role of sleep in optimizing athletic performance.  Let’s face it- many times rest and recovery get a “bad rap” as it relates to sports participation.

The Science of Sleep

Lack of quality sleep deprives athletes from getting enough Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage sleep.  REM is one of 4 stages of sleep, and the sleep stage responsible for learning new information, as well as providing a feeling of refreshment after a good night’s sleep. The REM stage of sleep also provides the emotional and cognitive benefits of sleep, so with sufficient REM sleep, athletes will feel emotionally balanced, and able to regulate their emotions and make good judgments.

When sleep stages are interrupted, REM sleep is often sacrificed, as it is the last stage in the cycle to occur before the sleep cycle repeats itself.  Without enough REM sleep, athletes face both physical and mental setbacks.

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, muscle strength and endurance) 

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, compared with athletes who slept for more than 8 hours per night.

Mental Health Challenges Associated with Sleep Deprivation

Coupled with the physical concerns, there are possible mental health factors associated with sleep deprivation in athletes, including:

a. Increased feeling of irritability, stress, frustration and anger, with greater prevalence of reacting negatively when something doesn’t go well for them.

b. Chronic lack of sleep may prolong, or even cause, mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety

c. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with many mental health conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Strategies for Improving Athlete’s Sleep

The following strategies can help athletes to take better control of their sleep habits:

a. Create a daily plan and schedule adequate sleep into your day/night (plan your sleep like you would for training and competition should rescheduled)

b. Follow a post workout/competition routine for rest and recovery.  Includes physical treatment, nutrition, hydration and mental recovery.  

c. Follow a regular bedtime and wake up time (because your body craves the consistency)

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

e. Get regular exposure to natural light – especially during the winter months for “indoor” venue athletes.

f. Develop a daily meditation, self-awareness or relaxation routine before bed. Focusing on breathing is a good example of  allowing your body to relax and be in a better state for sleep.

 g. Do not use your bedroom for work or the use of electronics/ TV etc. (so that your brain doesn’t associate your bedroom as a place of business, distraction and activity)

Please note:  This article does not seek to address or diagnose sleep disorders. Sleep disorders are a serious condition and require medical attention.  Conditions such as insomnia, sleep apnea and other sleep disorders require medical intervention and should be diagnosed by a physician. 

by Dr. Patrick Elliott

References

Dubetz, C., & Cripps, A. (2017). Sleep Deprivation Affecting Athletic Performance. Journal of Sports Medicine and Allied Health Sciences: Official Journal of the Ohio Athletic Trainers Association, 3(1), 11.

Frederick, A. R., Comport, B. E., Lewis, K. D., Almanzar, Y., Kurtz, M. A., Kunkel, S., & Price, T. B. (2016). Comparison of Sleep Deprivation Effects in Student Athletes and Non-Athletes (Preliminary Results).

Milewski, M. D., Skaggs, D. L., Bishop, G. A., Pace, J. L., Ibrahim, D. A., Wren, T. A., & Barzdukas, A. (2014). Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, 34(2), 129-133.

Simpson, N. S., Gibbs, E. L., & Matheson, G. O. (2017). Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: implications and recommendations for elite athletes. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 27(3), 266-274.

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