The amount of sleep that you get can have a large impact on your performance. Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory at Stanford University has been following the sleep patterns and performance of athletes for years. Her research indicates that getting more sleep leads to better performance for all types of athletes.
In one study, she followed the Stanford women’s tennis team for five weeks as they attempted to get 10 hours of sleep each night. Those who increased their sleep time ran faster sprints and hit more accurate tennis shots than those who got less sleep. In another study, she found that getting extra sleep improved performance, mood and alertness in both swimming and basketball. She also saw many athletes set new personal bests and break long standing records after altering their sleep habits.
Getting enough sleep is essential for professional baseball players who play daily and travel frequently. Crossing time zones and playing day games after night games can keep you from getting regular, consistent hours of sleep. This lack of sleep is called “sleep debt,” and it can have a negative effect on sports performance, as well as cognitive function, mood and reaction time.
Why does more sleep improve performance? Researchers say it works because your body releases growth hormone when you sleep. Growth hormone helps you recover between games and workouts, stimulates muscle growth, speeds-up tissue repair, improves bone building and facilitates fat burning. Lack of sleep slows the release of growth hormone. We also know that adequate sleep is necessary for learning new skills, so sleep is critical for health, performance and skill development.
How much sleep do you need? Research shows that as little as 20 total hours of sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on performance, especially in power and skill sports. The 20 hours can occur as the result of 20 consecutive days with one hour less sleep, five 4-hour days or any combination that equals 20 hours. Sleep experts recommend that adult athletes get 7 to 9 hours daily sleep. You can estimate your own needs by experimenting over a few weeks. If you fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed and wake up without an alarm, you are probably getting the right amount of sleep. If you fall asleep immediately after hitting the pillow and always need an alarm to wake up, you are probably sleep deprived.
The good news is that just one sleepless night is not necessarily associated with any negative effects on performance. So, don’t worry if you toss and turn the night before a game. One sleepless night is unlikely to hurt your performance, especially if you take a 20-30 minute power nap the day of the game.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.