How important is sleep?

Sleep is for the strong; not the weak.


How often do you come across on inspirational Instagram or YouTube training video of some exercise guru chatting shit about the hustle, the grind and the mantra of “sleep is for the weak, you can sleep when you die”


Oh boy do I have a message for those who live by that very mantra. You can sooner look forward to that extra sleep compared us “weak” folk as you will not be living as long as us.


You will be permanently asleep. Lack of sleep and sleep deprivation can in-fact lead you to an early grave.


Quite the morbid start to today’s blog but that is the reality of the importance of sleep. When sleep is restricted, our cognition is impaired, our memory consolidation is weakened, mental wellbeing is affected, growth is downregulated, our immune function is compromised and our ability to metabolise glucose is impaired. A one stop shop to ruining your health and progress.


Today I will dive into the importance to sleep as it relates to athletes and how you can maximise sleep to maintain and improve performance.


Areas Addressed

  • The importance of sleep for health and performance
  • How sleep inadequacy affects performance
  • Tools to help analyse and optimise your clients sleep


Sleep and the Athlete


Sleep is a foundational pillar for long-term health and athletic performance. The athletes proverbial “tool box” should include solid sleep related protocols to aid health, recovery and performance, just like they do with nutrition and training.


The restriction of sleep and sleep deprivation will most definitely lead to impaired performance while also increasing the risk of incurring an injury.


A caveat surrounding the topic of sleep is that people are very poor at recognising the true quality of the sleep they get. Monitoring sleep with your commercially available smart watch may seem like a wise move but the reality is the data is quite unreliable when compared to gold standard laboratory equipment (which is not practical for real world use). Devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit are just part of the ever-growing world of consumerism. Flashy, sexy but in reality not worth it.


So does this mean you shouldn’t monitor sleep? No, it just means that you should learn to measure other things and listen to your body first and foremost.


One way of learning how well we sleep is monitoring and answering simple questions:


Did I sleep >8 hours? (time in bed to time of waking)

Am I satisfied with how I slept last night?

Do I feel refreshed after waking?

Am I sleepy during the day?

Am I fatigued during the day?


If you are not consistently getting more than 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night; if you are not satisfied and refreshed after sleeping and if you are sleepy and fatigued during the day then the chances are that your sleep is inadequate and your sleep hygiene and routines are below par.

But what are the consequences of inadequate sleep for an athlete?


Athletes are very susceptible to sleep inadequacy for a variety of reasons. Most of these surround training and competition schedules, travel and supplement use. Additionally poor sleep routines compound these issues further such as screen times, lack of routine and ill prepared sleep environment. Chronically these can lead to large decrements in performance with the athlete left guessing and blaming poor training.


Evidence suggest that’s sport specific skills (skills needed to compete in your sport) along with physical performance parameters (physical demands of your sport) will be hampered when sleep is poor. Peak power will decrease, speed will suffer, reaction times will increase and endurance performance will decrease.


Thankfully there is a remedy to these performance issues – more sleep. This is not exactly ground breaking information but the application of certain sleep principles will help to induce sleep quicker and at the same time induce a deeper sleep.


There are many contributing factors to sleep disturbance and sleep inadequacy for athletes, many of these also translate to members of the general population.  There are sporting and non-sporting factors.


Sporting factors for sleep disturbance include: night time competition, excessive arousal and anticipation for competition, early morning training, unfamiliar sleep environment when travelling (hotels), excessive of high training loads and travel for competition and training.


Non-sporting factors include: social life and social needs/desires, work and study commitments (especially amateur athletes), personal beliefs and education around sleep and recovery, lifestyle, diet quality and supplement use, family commitments and biological factors such as age, gender and disabilities.


There is a clear link between sleep disturbance and over-reaching/overtraining. For that reason it is imperative to monitor subjective presentation of athletes during intensified training. You do not want to be pushing too far and doing damage. Health and availability comes first.


Interestingly, emerging evidence has begun to highlight a link between low energy availability and sleep quality. With a hypometabolic state (from energy restriction) affecting nocturnal body temperatures and sleeping patterns. This further highlights the importance of fuelling correctly for the demands you face as an athlete.


It is clear that sleep is important and that sleep inadequacy will lead to reduced performance levels but as always knowing this is useless if you don’t know how to address it.



Tools you should use as a coach


Below are 4 tools for you as a coach to use a means of empowering and screening your clients sleep quality and associated behaviours.


  1. Education: Educate your clients on sleep requirements and the negative impact of poor sleep on health and performance. Educate them on strategies and routines to improve sleep and the impact of the various factors on sleep. Use a variety of modes of delivery such as leaflets, face-to-face, presentations, case studies, infographics etc.
  2. Screening: Screen clients correctly using a series of questionnaires. You may need to refer them to a sleep specialist depending on the results of the questionnaires. The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) is used to assess sleep quality, the Sleep Hygiene Index to assess sleep hygiene and the Epworth Sleepiness Scale to assess daytime sleepiness. However, these questionnaires have not been validated for athletes. Athlete-specific questionnaires would include the Athlete Sleep Screening Questionnaire and the Athlete Sleep Behaviour Questionnaire.
  3. Encourage napping (<30 minutes) in in clients who are at higher risk of sleep inadequacy. A combination of napping and pre-nap caffeine intake can also be used in time-appropriate situations such are around mid-day and no later unless competition is occurring later in the day and it is actually required for the athlete due to poor sleep the night prior. The caffeine absorption will kick in as the person sleeps and upon waking they feel more energised.
  4. Encourage sleep “banking” with clients who are more regularly anxious around competition as they are more likely to incur a loss of sleep around competition time. This would essentially mean prescribing extra sleep in week/s long periods for athletes who generally suffer from performance arousal and anxiety issues around competition.
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