Sometimes there are simply not enough hours in the day to achieve what you want to achieve. After a long day at work and the inclusion of travel there and back, which inevitably will include rush hour traffic, a significant portion of your day has already been utilised. If you then consider family life and your social life, you might start to wonder why more hours weren’t added to that 24 hour clock!

Something extremely important that’s been forgotten on this day to day schedule: rest and recuperation. When your daily schedule becomes too hectic and simply too much, often it is your rest and recuperation period that suffers. Taking hours away from your valuable sleep patterns seems like the only logical answer when you have places to go and people to see. This might be OK for a day or two but what happens if this lifestyle is sustained?

Sleep patterns, or lack of them, can also significantly impact upon your health and fitness levels. Have you ever tried to exercise whilst fatigued or at extreme hours of the day? How did your overall session feel compared to a session when you were fresh and raring to go? With all this in mind, this article aims to contemplate the importance of sleep to optimal athletic performance.

The Importance Of Sleep

The sleep wakefulness cycle is one which associates the hours of daylight with activity and the hours of darkness with sleep. This repeated recurrence on a day to day basis is linked to the pineal gland and considers the importance of hormonal release to regulate this cycle (Reilly and Edwards, 2006).

Previous research linking the above theory with athletic performance has yielded similar results. Key variables such as muscle strength, anaerobic power and overall work rate all seem to mimic a similar curve to that of body temperature. Complex skills also tend to peak at earlier times in the day when compared to gross motor skills (Atkinson and Speirs, 1998).

When these intrinsic rhythms and cycles are disrupted for one reason or another, for example shift work or simply a lack of sleep, consequences often result which include alterations to mood, alertness and performance levels (Bonnet, 2006).

Research Investigations Into Sleep Deprivation

In 1975, Thomas and Reilly undertook a research investigation into the effects of total sleep deprivation on continuous exercise. Results demonstrated that it was possible to maintain physical activity for a minimum of 100 hours. However, during this time period significant decrements were noticed in heart rate, lung function and actual reaction times.

In 1992, Meta analyses of total sleep deprivation studies undertaken by Koslowsky and Babkoff echoed similar findings. In a none too surprising fashion, conclusions drawn revealed the longer the period without sleep, the greater the effect on athletic performance. Speed related skills were also seen to be affected more so than accuracy related tasks.

The above findings were all yielded from total sleep deprivation studies. Alternative research investigations have also contemplated chronic sleep loss as opposed to total. In 1998, Smith et al. analysed competitors during a 4640km cycle race across America. This event took approximately eight days to complete, with the majority of competitors taking no more than two hours sleep per night throughout the event. Although these conditions were manageable, a huge drain on the individual’s physical and mental resources was observed.

Although research investigations into the effects of total sleep deprivation and chronic sleep loss provide fascinating results, it is often the studies which contemplate partial sleep deprivation which are most relevant and applicable to ‘the norm’ sporting performances. This is because most sporting events take place over a single day with sleep loss often occurring leading up to the actual event.

In 1992, Sinnerton and Reilly considered the effects of partial sleep deprivation on the swimming performances of eight individuals. Each individual was tested on four consecutive days whilst only being allowed 2.5 hours sleep per night. Results demonstrated that no decrements were noted in physical attributes such as strength, lung function or overall swimming times. However, psychological functions such as mood, tension and confusion were all significantly altered. One possible hypothesis for these findings stated that the primary requirement for sleep was in fact psychological as opposed to physical.

Despite the above findings, alternative research investigations into the effects of partial sleep deprivation on sub maximal weight lifting efforts have yielded conflicting results. Reilly and Piercy (1994) demonstrated significant decrements in performance of the biceps curl, bench press, leg press and dead lift after a second night of sleep loss. Significant decrements were noted both physically and psychologically.

Final Word

Previous research investigations, whether considering total sleep deprivation, chronic sleep loss or partial sleep deprivation have all demonstrated the importance of adequate sleep for optimal athletic performance.

Although research findings will often place emphasis on either the physical or psychological impact of sleep deprivation, often they will go hand in hand and it will be hard to experience one without it negatively impacting upon the other, and vice versa. Ultimately, this severity will depend on the individual, their level of sleep deprivation and the task they are required to complete.

Applying The Results

So what does this mean to you? Let’s take weightlifting as an example. Previous research, highlighted above, has demonstrated that partial sleep deprivation over a period as little as two days can significantly alter your ability to perform during various key exercises performed at sub maximal levels. In a nutshell, your ability to perform at an optimal and close to your personal bests will be severely limited through sleep deprivation and you may quickly experience negative shifts in both your repetitions and resistance utilised as well as your mindset.

So how can this be avoided? Quite simply, allow yourself adequate rest and recovery periods on a daily basis. If your life is too hectic or too busy then substituting sleep is simply not the answer.

Previous research suggests that sedentary individuals require between 5-10 hours sleep per night. This figure is often further enhanced in active individuals and athletes (Reilly et al. 1997). Consequently, it’s important to find out what works for you and to do all you can to ensure those minimum hours of rest are achieved on a day to day basis.

If you do undertake regular exercise then monitor your progress and also consider the tell tale signs of over-training. If you notice significant decrements within your performance levels or constantly have that feeling of being run down and under the weather then it might be that work/rest ratio is imbalanced and you’re not allowing your body to adequately recover.

If you’re serious about your chosen sport and more importantly health and fitness, then sleep should be given just as much consideration as your actual training regime and diet. If you lead a hectic lifestyle then think of where you might be able to cut back a little, or utilise short sleeps and power naps to recharge your batteries whenever possible.

The important take home message from previous research considering sleep and optimal athletic performance is that whether physically or psychologically, failing to account for adequate sleep will quickly catch up on you and has the ability to destroy all of your hard work and efforts from a performance viewpoint.