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If you’re a high-performance athlete, you’re probably used to waking up early for early-morning workouts. If you want to be the best, you know you have to be willing to work hard and go the extra mile. But did you know that going the extra mile could also mean getting more sleep?

Sleep has a huge impact on sports performance. Recent research indicates that consistently sleeping well improves various aspects of physical fitness and athleticism, including reaction times, accuracy, speed, and decision-making skills. Scientists have also found that sleep reduces the risk of sports injury and improves mental toughness – two of the most important obstacles for high-performance athletes.

Sleep and reaction time

Reaction time is defined as “the amount of time it takes to respond to a stimulus”. In sports, reaction time is crucial. Athletes are constantly required to react quickly to different stimuli – the movement of the ball, the positioning of team members or opponents, the trajectory of a fist, the sound of a pistol to mark the start of a race.

Scientists often use a ruler drop test to measure reaction times. The assessor holds the ruler vertically in the air between the subject’s thumb and index finger, but not touching. Without warning, they release the ruler and let it drop. The subject must catch it as quickly as possible as soon as they see it fall. The scientists record the distance the ruler fell as an indication of reaction time.

Research indicates a positive correlation between how sleep deprived a person is and how long it takes them to catch the ruler. That means, the less sleep an athlete gets, the longer it takes them to react to the game or match around them. The concept is simple: Less sleep means longer reaction times, which means poorer sports performance. Unfortunately, sports performance isn’t the only negative effect of increased reaction times. Increased reaction times also lead to sports injuries.

Sleep and sports injuries

Sports injuries are devastating for high-performance athletes. The best case scenario is missing out on training and competitions that can bring them closer to their goals. The worst case scenario is the end of their sports career (or worse).

Research indicates that sleep deprivation leads to increased sports injuries. In fact, scientists have found that adolescent athletes who sleep less than eight hours each night are 68 percent more likely to get injured than athletes who regularly sleep at least eight hours per night.

There are two reasons why sleep deprivation leads to sports injuries. The first has to do with reaction times. Athletes need quick reaction times to be able to protect themselves from unexpected, potentially harmful events (like a bat, a ball, or a stick to the face). The second has to do with recovery time, the relationship between recovery and sleep, and the importance of recovery to avoid injury. Sleep is essential for recovery in terms of fatigue as well as injury, and recovery is essential to prevent repeat injuries that are often more serious. If you’re worried about a sports injury ruining your career, the best thing you can do is improve your sleep.

Sleep and accuracy

In sports, accuracy is defined as “the ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.” An accurate pass or shot is straight at the target, exactly where the athlete intended.

It should be no surprise that sleep also impacts an athlete’s accuracy. Researchers tested the impact of sleep on a collegiate basketball team’s accuracy with shooting and found that when players slept for as long as they could for five to seven weeks (ten hours per night as the goal), their shooting accuracy improved in both free throws (by 9 percent) and three pointers (by 9.2 percent).

Sleep and speed

Speed isn’t important for all athletes, but it’s important for quite a few. Many athletes, like track and field athletes and swimmers, compete exclusively with speed. Others, like American football players and baseball players, need to demonstrate quick sprint times to be considered for high-level teams.

Speed is another important athletic quality impacted by sleep (or lack thereof). In the same study, previously mentioned, involving collegiate basketball players, scientists found that basketball players sprinted faster after being encouraged to sleep as much as possible for five to seven weeks. At the beginning of the sleep study, their average time (in seconds) for a 282 feet sprint was 16.2. After sleeping as much as possible for five to seven weeks, they dropped their average sprint time to 15.5. Any sprinter knows that 0.7 seconds makes a difference.

Sleep and decision-making skills

Athleticism and speed aren’t the only qualities that make a good athlete. Many athletes also rely on their decision-making for their success. Is this a smart pass? Should I pass or shoot? Should I steal a base? Smart decisions require effective decision-making, and for athletes, these decisions need to be fast.

Scientists have found that sleep has a significant impact on decision-making skills, especially when the decisions are meant to be fast. In one study, scientists performed an experiment on 49 West Point Cadets to test the effects of sleep and sleep deprivation on split-second decision-making skills. They found that after being sleep-deprived, the cadets were 2.4 percent less accurate. In contrast, cadets who were well-rested improved their scores by 4.3 percent. Sleep impacts decision-making skills, and decision-making is highly important for high-performance athletes.

Sleep and mental toughness

Last, but certainly not least, is the topic of mental toughness. Mental toughness is one of the greatest qualities a high-performance athlete can have. It’s the quality that allows athletes to get up when they’ve been knocked down, to come back when losing, and to maintain composure in the most high-pressure moments.

In recent years, multiple studies have come to the conclusion that sleep is one of the most important factors impacting mental toughness. In one study, researchers tested the effects of sleep on the mental toughness of 92 adolescents (35% females; mean age, 18.92 years). The participants completed a Mental Toughness Questionnaire and were split into groups high and low mental toughness. Objective sleep was recorded via sleep electroencephalograms (EEG) and subjective sleep was assessed via a questionnaire. The researchers found that the adolescents who slept better (objectively, according to the EEG) had higher Mental Toughness Scores than those who slept more poorly. They concluded that improving sleep is likely an effective way to improve mental toughness.

In another study, researchers tested the effects of sleep deprivation on treadmill performance. They found that sleep deprivation made the participants perform worse, not because the physical stress on their bodies was greater, but rather because their perception of effort was greater. Athletes give up more quickly when sleep-deprived, and sleep is one of the most important factors for mental toughness.

How much sleep do athletes need?

Sleep recommendations vary according to age. Sleep experts and doctors often recommend that average adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, that older children get between eight and ten hours, and that younger children get between nine and eleven hours. (The reason for these recommendations has to do with the way we experience sleep in sleep stages and cycles.)

That being said, high-performance athletes are not average. Their bodies undergo much more stress than most. As a result, they require more sleep. In many studies mentioned above, adult athlete participants were instructed to get as much sleep as possible, aiming for ten hours of sleep per night. In these studies, in which they slept for as long as possible, their performance improved significantly.

Young athletes could also benefit from additional sleep, and perhaps more than adult athletes. Older teenage athletes (between 14 and 17 years old) should aim for ten to eleven hours of sleep per day for optimal performance. Younger teenage athletes (below 14) should aim for slightly more at eleven to 12 hours per day. As a general rule, all athletes should sleep until they’re no longer tired and waking up is easy and pleasant.

How to improve your sleep

Despite the importance of sleep, especially for athletes and their performance, many athletes don’t get the sleep they need. Elite athletes are often battling jet lag, inconsistent training schedules due to travel, and psychological stress. All of which may have a significant impact on their sleep duration and sleep quality.

Youth athletes also have their fair share of obstacles when it comes to sleep. They often go to bed too late (because they have homework to do or because they’re naturally night owls) and are forced to wake up early for class. For many, excessive screen time (either for work or pleasure) also plays a role in their poor sleep quality.

Fortunately, scientists have found that there are quite a few ways for athletes to improve their sleep. Here are a couple of tips:

  1. No caffeine after 3:00 PM. Recommendation: Switch to a caffeine free herbal infusion
  2. No long naps in the afternoon. Recommendation: Cut the naps down to 20 minutes
  3. No blue light at least an hour before bedtime. Recommendation: If you can’t avoid the screens, try some glasses that block blue light
  4. No light in your bedroom. Recommendation: Try a sleep mask or blackout curtains
  5. No noise in your bedroom. Recommendation: Use earplugs, headphones (designed for sleeping), or a white noise machine to block out the distracting noise
  6. If you’re travelling and suffering from jet lag, try taking a melatonin supplement to regulate your circadian rhythm.
  7. If you’re too anxious or nervous to sleep, try natural sleep supplements, herbal infusions, or essential oils to help you relax.

One final note for athletes everywhere: Waking up for early-morning workouts is great, as long as you feel well-rested when your alarm goes off. Otherwise, it’s probably more beneficial to hit the snooze button.

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