Sleep is the key to Enhancing Athletic Performance

Sleep: The key to Athletic Performance
by Ted L. Forcum, DC, DACBSP

In competitive sports, everyone is looking for that performance edge. Most of us look for it in the latest training techniques to enhance our workouts; However, for the motivated athlete, training hard is not the limiting factor. Good athletes all train hard; great athletes recover quickly so they can train hard sooner. The quality of an athletes’ sleep is integral to their post exercise recovery. Sleep deprivation, sleep disturbance, and jet lag are the key sleep factors that affect the overall restorative quality of the sleep state. When athletes combine study, travel, and work with early morning practices, they can easily accumulate a sleep debt that can impact their athletic performance.  Sleep impacts athletic performance in four main ways:

1) Sleep deprivation reduces performance of the cerebral cortex of the brain - responsible for the most important mental functions in sports such as focus, concentration, flexibility, decision making, and information processing.
2) The very deep or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep helps consolidate activities, tasks, and skills undertaken that day - integral to learning motor function and new skills.
3) Deep sleep helps stimulate Growth Hormone release.  Growth Hormone, the body’s natural agent for cell growth and reproduction, leads to increased muscle mass and stimulates the immune system. The greatest amount of growth hormone is produced in the body during deep (REM) sleep. Without the proper sleep cycles, the normal release of growth hormone will be stifled, limiting that athlete’s physical recovery, athletic performance, or the ability to train at a greater level.
4) Sleep deprivation raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with tissue repair and growth.

Quality sleep is essential for skills learning and skills performance, which are critical to excellence in most sports. Even partial sleep loss will impact heart rate, oxygen levels, lactate accumulation, and ventilation. Sleep loss reduces endurance by 11%. An ongoing study performed by Cheri Mah at The Stanford University Sleep Disorder Clinic and Research Laboratory, found that sleep improved performance by the fractions of a second representing the difference between the gold medal and fourth place. Mah recommmends that athletes sleep a minimum of 8+ hours a night, and even more in the weeks prior to competition.

Many factors contribute to an athlete’s ability to sleep soundly, but the single most significant factor is the quality of the foundation the athlete sleeps on. Recent studies showed that an average of seven hours of quality sleep a night improved health, affect, balance, and satisfaction with life, while below seven hours of average sleep quality increased feelings of tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion. An unsupportive, old or sagging mattress can reduce the quality of sleep for an athlete, or worse yet, create costly injuries that suspend positive progression and cause a decline in performance and fitness.  It was found that mean skin temperature, deep (REM) sleep, sleep efficiency, wake after sleep onset, and subjective ratings of mattress comfort were significantly affected according to mattress type and comfort.  When subjects slept on “comfortable” mattresses, mean skin temperature was lower, the percentage of wake after sleep onset was lower; sleep efficiency was greater; and the percentage of deep sleep was higher than for “uncomfortable” mattresses, thus indicating that “comfortable mattresses” facilitate longer and deeper sleep.  Subjective ratings of sleep quality paralleled recorded sleep data. Thus, for an athlete to acheive their best, it is essential that they sleep on the best quality mattress possible as a way to enhance recovery and improve the chances of athletic success.

Dr. Forcum is director of Back In Motion Sports Injuries Clinic, LLC. and Past President of the ACA Sports Council. Dr. Forcum can be reached at 11385 SW Scholls Ferry Road, Beaverton, Oregon 97008, 503.524.9040,

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