Why Sleeping Makes You a Better Athlete, Mentally & Physically

The phrase “sleep is for the weak” is said to have different origins. Some say it emerged during wars and battles as a sneer over the soldiers who slept, challenging their physical abilities. Others believe it is connected to the culture of work—when someone sleeps, another person uses this time to excel and get more done. However, this phrase has deep fallouts. Sleep is one of the most important processes in our lives. A good night’s sleep contributes to the quality of your day and affects your mood and health in the long run. Moreover, sleep is essential to good performance in any type of sport. Continue reading to find out why!

What is sleep?

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From a psychological point of view, sleep is a state of consciousness. It is a natural process in which many things occur. The topic of sleep and why we do it has been in the interest of scientists for a long time. After studying sleep, researchers found out that it was not only a time for relaxation and peace but also a time when the brain is actively working. 

They have identified four stages of sleep. During stages I-III of sleep: our heart rate reduces, muscles relax, breathing and eye movement slow down, the brain waves gradually become slower, and by stage III we fall deeply asleep. After that comes REM sleep—rapid eye movement sleep—where our eyes move rapidly from side to side. Interestingly, this stage highly contrasts with its preceding one, when we are least receptive to anything happening on the outside. REM is characterized by an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, mixed brain wave frequency (similar frequency to when we are awake and relaxed), and the paralyzation of our arms and legs. This is because dreams are most likely to occur during REM and so our brain makes sure we do not act out on them and injure ourselves. 

So why is sleep important?

Numerous studies have shown that sleep is extremely vital to function healthily. The recommended duration of sleep for teenagers aged 14-17 is 8-10 hours. We rest while sleeping, but some major neurological changes happen in the brain as well. When we sleep, our brain washes away the toxins acquired during the day with fluids. Moreover, our brain erases the less important parts of memories and strengthens parts we do need to remember. If you don’t get enough sleep, you will not be able to acquire new skills as easily. Sleep also improves the state of the blood vessels and the heart, which is important when playing sports. Cognitive performance showed to be influenced by sleep.

Research conducted done by Ricardo Brandt in 2017 on athletes monitored their sleep and consequent performance. Low quality of sleep resulted in anger and reduced vigor, which then led to a decrease in the odds of winning the game. For those athletes who reported to have slept well, the odds of winning the game increased. The research concluded a correlation between sleep and the state of mind, which then influences sports performance. Another study observed male basketball players who increased the duration of their sleep. The outcome was faster running, improved shooting, and improved mental state. Female and male swimmers who changed their sleeping schedule to 10 hours per day also reported significant improvements: increased kick strokes and quicker reaction time off diving blocks. 

What happens if you don’t sleep?

Sleep deprivation is a serious issue that should not be joked with. Partial sleep loss or poor quality of sleep (waking up, difficulty breathing, nightmares) takes a toll on the whole body. It can lead to weight gain, illnesses (during sleep, our body releases hormones that help fight infections), being irritable, anxious and even depression. Sleep loss will affect your athletic performance as well including bad decision-making and attentiveness, fatigue, reduced strength in muscles, slower reaction time, and motor learning. 

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Since sleep affects sports performance, athletes should cooperate with his or her coach to decide on a sleeping schedule that fits optimally with practice and other responsibilities. Nevertheless, here are some tips that may help the quality of your sleep:

  • Avoid using technology an hour before going to bed. It disrupts your circadian rhythm and makes your body think it is daylight

  • Avoid consuming caffeine in the evening

  • Do not take naps after 3 p.m. 

  • Avoid overexercising, and doing physical activity 3 hours before sleeping

  • Stick to a sleeping schedule

  • Remember to stay hydrated

It may be hard to change sleeping habits, but the effort pays off in the long run. I wish you good luck and a truly good night’s sleep! 

“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.”

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Works Cited

Athletic Performance Training Center. Get Some Sleep, Improve Performance. https://athleticperformancetc.wordpress.com/tag/sleep-deprivation/

Brandt R., Bevilacqua G.G., Andrade A. (2017) Perceived Sleep Quality, Mood States, and Their Relationship With Performance Among Brazilian Elite Athletes During a Competitive Period.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Volume 31, Number 4, April 2017, pp. 1033-1039(7).

Corbis (2014). Sleeping allows the brain to cleanse itself - but too much is harmful. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health/article/1412641/sleeping-allows-brain-cleanse-itself-too-much-harmful 

Foley L. (2021) Sleep, Athletic Performance, and Recovery. Sleep Foundation, https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-activity/athletic-performance-and-sleep 

Greif, K. (2020, January 15). Sleep is for the weak: Origins and meaning. https://sleepauthorities.com/sleep-is-for-the-weak-quote/ 

NINDS (2019). Brain basics: Understanding sleep. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep 

Worley S. L. (2018). The Extraordinary Importance of Sleep: The Detrimental Effects of Inadequate Sleep on Health and Public Safety Drive an Explosion of Sleep Research. P & T: a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 43(12), 758–763. 

Links to images:

Athletic Performance Training Center. Get Some Sleep, Improve Performance. https://athleticperformancetc.wordpress.com/tag/sleep-deprivation/ 

Corbis (2014). Sleeping allows the brain to cleanse itself - but too much is harmful. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health/article/1412641/sleeping-allows-brain-cleanse-itself-too-much-harmful 


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