Exploring the Relationship Between Sleep and Athletic Performance

Exploring the Relationship Between Sleep and Athletic Performance

By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of purplepatch Fitness

I am often asked, "What are the key ingredients to athlete success? What is the magic approach or catalyst to improve performance that is present across nearly every successful athlete?"

I love the question, as it opens the door to establishing some unlovable foundational thinking on what training and sporting success are built on. In answering the question, I think it is unavoidable to start with the training program.

Performance arrives from the proper execution of the training program. Notice, it isn't about simply having a good plan, but rather about executing the plan as intended. It needs to be appropriate for your background, goals, life situation and specific training needs. This is the bedrock of your performance, but sitting parallel with this element of success are other habits that can maximize the yield from that plan, or unhinge the potential by becoming a source of negative stress that corrodes the adaptations that lead to performance gains.

One of these factors is sleep. We all acknowledge sleep is important, although less seem to truly put practice into action within the busy lives most of us lead.To value sleep, and ensure we embrace it is as a performance facilitator, a little education is necessary.

Too often, sleep becomes an afterthought, and is typically the first thing to be compromised when training and life get busy, often leading to detrimental results.

Our coaching methodology circles around the purplepatch Pillars of Performance, which is an educational tool to help athletes set the lens on the most important elements of successful performance evolution. The pillars represent the importance to place equal emotional value on recovery, nutrition and strength training, as one does on the endurance training they undergo to improve in sport. This mindset has aided in many great race results while developing more healthy and balanced athletes in sport and life.

Within these pillars is sleep. Quite simply, it is your most powerful and effective recovery tool. Your ability to perform and improve in the sport of life is as dependent on your sleep as it is in any training or hard work that you put into your day. It is also the area that is most often compromised by motivated and busy people. Let's explore its role in performance in sport and life:

Cyclist training with power using a power meter

Why Is Sleep Important?

Sleep is the most critical element that facilitates:
  • Physiological adaptations to exercise and training.
  • Enables readiness for subsequent training sessions.
  • Limits injury risk.
  • Optimal energy levels in your day.
  • Ability to retain focus, as well as critical thinking.

While most of us are over-scheduled in our day with work, family and other commitments, it is important to embrace the reality that you simply cannot beat physiology. I often ask people if they are simply working hard, or are they working effectively? There is a vast difference, and whether in a sport, business or life arena, the concept of effectiveness must be embraced.

What Is Good Sleep?

It is important to realize that quality sleep is the combination of quantity and quality of sleep. The right amount of quality sleep is the mission, and it is highly individual. What isn't unique is its importance and value in the performance lifestyle. Some people require seven or more hours, while others function well on six.

What we do know is the quality that is critical. It is easiest to control our duration of time at rest. To have an impact on the quality one needs to consider environment, schedule, diet and other factors.

Cyclist training with power using a power meter

Why Is Sleep Compromised?

The Fallacy of "More Is Better"

The biggest impacts on the habits around quality sleep lay in our global culture and mindset toward work, as well as our individual value placed on the importance of sleep. We are all susceptible to the "more is better" attitude to work, as well as training, with much of the barometer of success of an individual built around how much one does, how many hours one works or trains, or the level of their global commitments.

Low sleep is often viewed as a badge of honor, whereas an expressed value on sleep is often viewed as a sign of either weakness or laziness. We read war stories of all-nighters and low sleepers, but seldom read about our most successful athletes and business leaders often understanding the power of quality sleep, rest and recuperation.

Simply put, sleep isn't sexy, yet it is a performance enhancer, and the empowered and wise leverage it to their advantage.

Most people compromise sleep quality and duration to fit in more on the "To Do List". This corrosive habit is compromising the effectiveness of what one can bring to training or work. Quality drops, effectiveness drops, health is compromised, and you bring a worse you to everything in life, training and work.

By way of a case study, a group of neurologists and sleep experts, led by Dr Chris Winter, studied MLB players' careers over several years, gathering data on all aspects of life, background and approach, including sleep habits. At the conclusion of the longitudinal study, the greatest prediction in the length of a MLB player's career was their sleep habits. Think about it! Sleep habits predict how long a professional baseball player can expect to remain on the roster. Compelling stuff.

Consider Your Environment

Beyond our relationship with this important part of the performance equation, sleep quality is also heavily influenced by our habits and environment. The beacon of this may be the mobile phone in the bedroom, as well as use of screens immediately prior to bedtime. The light emanating from these devices triggers to the brain that it is daylight, and disrupts our natural rhythm and hormonal response that aid in our natural sleep cycles.

Add to this the need for a cool sleep environment, a place that is dark and quiet, and it is easy to see how many of us don't set ourselves up for success.

Snack Wisely

The final consideration is our nutrition and drinks of choice in the hours leading up to sleep. Proper hydration is hugely important in the day, and can facilitate quality sleep at night. With this said, it is better to avoid caffeinated beverages for several hours prior to bedtime if you are sensitive to these drinks.

Prior to bed, it is best to have a little carbohydrate snack, to help with a blood glucose spike, but then crash into improved rejuvenating sleep.

Cyclist training with power using a power meter

What About Daily Energy Management?

It is clear that committing to appropriate sleep hours, as well as improving sleep environment, is a winning long-term performance approach.When doing so, we set ourselves up for improved energy management throughout the day, but we can still integrate habits into the day that further enhance our energy balance and performance.These will include:

Eat Breakfast.

Seriously, it is the most important meal of the day. Make sure that you include plenty of protein and fat to provide a runway of energy resources to fuel your day.

Pay Attention to Hydration.

Energy lulls, hunger signals and sleepiness in the day are often related directly to poor hydration levels. Drink fluids throughout the day, but avoid sugary drinks that create short term energy spikes and short-term fixes that turn into energy crashes just minutes later.

Get Your Core Temperature Up!

Those mid-afternoon energy dips are not necessarily signals that you are overly fatigued; a contributing factor could be your naturally dropping core temperature associated with your circadian rhythm. Drink a warm decaffeinated beverage, such as mint tea, and feel your energy levels pop right back up for the subsequent hours.

Take a Nap.

While naps, or downtime, should not be viewed as a replacement for poor sleep, they are powerful performance enhancement tools. Thirty minutes or less (yes, 10 minutes is great!), a quiet environment and a place to rest is all you need. You do not need to feel like you must fall asleep to be effective, so meditation is also powerful here, but regularly scheduled min-breaks will radically improve your performance for the rest of the day. You don't need to be in bed, and almost every person can find a way to include 7 to 15 minutes of quiet time within the work day. Use your imagination, and become solutions based, as your effectiveness will climb from this habit.

Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is one of the leading endurance coaches in the world. He brings a unique background of professional coaching experience, elite athletics and education to lead the purplepatch team. He is a highly sought-after resource in the endurance community, writing and contributing to multiple publications such as Triathlete Magazine, Lava Magazine, Outside Magazine and Triathlete Europe.

His Master's degree in clinical and exercise physiology, as well as his experience as an elite swimmer and professional triathlete, form the backbone of his coaching philosophy, but it is his incredible ability to lead, educate and develop all levels of athletes to their potential with his excellent communication style that makes him such a sought after resource. You can follow him on the purplepatch blog, Facebook or Twitter @purplepatch.