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Sleep and the Athlete

Athletes train to win. It takes work to go to the gym. It takes time and effort to maintain the appropriate diet. It takes the adequate amount of sleep to achieve the optimal level of athletic performance we want.
Loss of sleep can take away from an athlete’s ability to perform despite all of that individual’s efforts in training with other aspects of a program. Physiologically, the body has shown a propensity to adapt to the conditions that it is provided. Studies that have examined the physiological markers associated with sleep such as growth hormone and cortisol have demonstrated that there is not always the significant negative impact that is thought to occur with sleep loss.
Performance reductions due to psychological effects of sleep loss are also important when considering the value of sleep with a training program. These negative effects can consist of decreased mental alertness, difficulty with complex decision making, perceived exertion, mood, confusion, decreased motivation, decreases in power production, and elevated fatigue reports. Reaction times were also slower in individuals with sleep deprivation. Any of these factors may contribute to poorer performance during training and athletic activities.
Consider decreased mental alertness, difficulty with complex decision making, confusion, and mood effects of sleep loss on performance. In any game or practice situation where being alert and making more complex decisions are required on a consistent basis, you can see how easy it is to perform at a lower level. A sleep deprived athlete who needs to process information and make the appropriate decisions in the flow of the game or practice at a rapid pace will inevitably fall behind with mental processing and this can lead to poor decisions during play. Mood alterations in a sleep deprived individual also factor in. Sleep loss often leads to a more irritable state of mind. This means that the athletes comes into the competition with a more negative attitude and then this is compounded with a negative performance which often leads to a poorer attitude during play. A poor attitude and bad decision making very rarely lead to a good performance.
Studies have linked a decrease in power production after episodes of sleep loss. Examples of activities where this can have an effect are sprinting activities, jumping activities, and other power sports. The noted differences in the performances with the power activities are slight and those with more athletic ability don’t have as significant of a negative effect when compared with those of lower skill level, but sleep still needs to be a consideration when individuals are training to maximize their performance in power production and the ability to maintain that power level throughout competition.
Sleep deprivation leads to more reports of fatigue with training. The trends in the research show that the individuals are able to complete high intensity training with minimal loss of performance, but the rate of perceived exertion are higher in those who are sleep deprived. This means that there is the potential of an athlete to report more difficulty and fatigue with a weight room workout, practice, or sporting event after sleep loss despite their actual ability to perform the activity. This can make it difficult for performance coaches and sports coaches to determine when to push an athlete and when to rest an athlete. Often times, modifications to training programs are made based off not only the actual performance of the athlete, but also from listening to the reports of the athlete before, during, and after training. Recognizing the differences between sleep deprivation and over-training can be difficult to determine by those who have less experience and those who don’t have the appropriate communication between coach and athlete.
Small differences in reaction times were also noted after episodes of sleep loss. The differences in the reactions times were small, but during competition, fractions of seconds matter. Slower reactions times combined with poor decision making or situations where reactive activities need to be performed in succession (such as a basketball player playing defense or a linebacker reading and reacting to dues from lineman and then running back) can add up contributing to a negative overall performance.
Mental functioning plays a big role in the performance of an athlete. Athletes that aren’t getting an adequate amount of sleep will inevitably start to demonstrate the negatives effects of sleep deprivation in their performance. Understanding the potential effects of sleep loss on the performance of an athlete allows us to better recognize the signs of sleep deprivation, provide the appropriate recommendations for the individual to get the rest that they need, and to alter a training program to meet the needs of the athlete.  Get your 7-9 hours of sleep each night to keep yourself energized and focused when you compete.


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