Why Is Sleep So Important For Athletes And What Affects It?

5 min read

Last Modified 4 February 2022 First Added 4 February 2022

By Nicholas Barber

What are the effects of sleep on athletic performance?

For supreme athletes looking to take on the world, as well as the rest of us mere mortals, sleep is essential for our health and wellbeing. It’s especially important for athletes training for major competitions as sleep helps them to recover enough to train harder and for longer.

Good sleep enables your heart to rest and cells and tissue to repair. And for athletes it makes possible the extreme levels of physical exertion required every day in training and competition. We know that exercise can help improve or maintain mental health, but sleep is just as important for maintaining athlete’s mental health.

In fact, getting enough sleep is vital to be able to push their bodies to the absolute limits during major events like the upcoming Beijing 2022 winter games.

What’s the evidence that sleep affects performance?

Research has been conducted at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory into the sleep patterns and athletic performance of Stanford athletes. It found that more sleep leads to better sports performance.

Stanford academic Cheri Mah discovered that getting extra sleep over several weeks improved performance, mood and alertness for athletes on Stanford’s men’s and women’s swimming teams and the men’s basketball team. It’s believed that deep sleep boosts athletic performance as this is when growth hormone is released, stimulating muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning.

Equally, a lack of sleep seems to have a negative effect on sports performance, mental processes, mood and reaction time. Research shows only 20 hours of sleep deprivation can damage sports performance, especially for skill and power sports.

Now we’ve seen why sleep’s so important for athletes, let’s investigate the environmental factors that determine the quality and amount of sleep athletes are able to achieve.

The freezing temperature of the environment where the games will be held will have a major impact on getting the quality of sleep needed to be in tip top condition and having any chance of bringing home a medal.

How is sleep effected when it’s cold outside?

The optimal temperature to sleep in is around 16 to 18°C, which is cooler than typical room temperature. More good news is that it’s often easier to get good-quality sleep in winter than on hot summer nights.

However, winter can also make it more challenging to create the best environment for rest. The lower levels of light available in winter have been linked to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mild form of depression that arises in the winter months.

Those affected can suffer lower energy levels and poor moods as well as sleep problems. Further downsides of sleeping in the cold can sometimes be an increased need to urinate in the night and the release of stress hormones into the body.

How is sleep effected when it’s hot outside?

At the other extreme from the icy cold conditions set to face the athletes competing in China, getting high quality sleep in extremely hot weather can be more difficult. This is because when it’s too hot you’re more likely to toss and turn, disrupting your sleep pattern.

According to sleep therapist Christabel Majendie, “Before you go to sleep naturally, your body produces a hormone called melatonin which causes a drop in core body temperature that is needed for sleep. If the ambient temperature is too high, this process is interrupted, so it may take longer to get to sleep.”

This explains why people sleep more during the longer and cooler nights of winter – it’s easier for your body to reach a comfortable sleeping temperature.

What are the effects of light on your sleep?

Aside from temperature, sunlight also has an impact on quality of sleep and differs greatly between the winter and summer months. Changing sunrise and sunset times can affect melatonin levels as well as the time you start to feel sleepy at night, according to the Alaska Sleep Clinic. So when the sun sets later, it may take longer to feel sleepy.

Athletes clearly can’t to do anything about the sun, but they can have some control of their sleeping environment. By eliminating external light using blackout curtains and putting away all electronic devices that emit light they can create the best chance of getting all the sleep they need.

How can sleeping with an open window boost your sleep performance?

Notably, both ParalympicsGB’s Millie Knight and Team GB’s Lamin Deen have said they prefer sleeping with the window open at night.

Indeed, this approach can be good for their health because it allows for a better CO2 balance in the bedroom, aiding and improving sleep quality.

This is important for both athletes as not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences, as Millie explains:

 

Skiing is a high-risk sport and requires quick thinking and concentration. If this is impaired by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep, mistakes can occur, resulting in loss of speed or danger.  Paralympic skier Millie Knight.

Let’s hope our Dream Team stars can get all the sleep they’ll need to reach peak performance and bring home medals from Beijing.

If you’re interested in keeping up to date with our athletes, check out our hub of athlete profiles and sleep-related articles here.

For information about how sleep affects an athlete’s productivity and performance read our article here.

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