Sleep Deprivation and Athletic Performance

Updated: Nov 11

In the United States, an estimated 50 - 70 million people suffer from sleep deprivation affecting general health, wellness, and physical performance. Among the many disorders that may develop due to lack of sleep, attempting to run and train to reach peak performance is severely limited if sufficient sleep isn't considered. And simply sleeping in on the weekend is not a fix-all remedy to make up for a restless week while simultaneously training for a goal race.

Professional runners (the select 1% that have lucrative endorsement deals that don't need the "day job") can afford to carve out plenty of time for 8 - 10 hours a night, plus a nap during the day. For the rest of us, if we don't dedicate time and effort to maintaining healthy sleep patterns, we'll quickly find ourselves in a losing battle, with daily fatigue robbing us of performance and wellness.

Sleep And Athletic Performance

Muscle contractions to generate power, endurance, and reaction time, are dictated by how rested and recovered an athlete is. And the crucial point to take home is that recovery from training primarily happens when you are asleep. Sure, runners use active recovery techniques during training (foam rolling, massage, or dynamic mobility training), but this aids in preparation to optimize recovery at night. When you are asleep, the body can spend all of its energy and effort on recovering and rebuilding muscle, tissues, ligaments, and bones.

** It's important to consume protein and complex carbs 1 - 2 hours before bedtime. If you go to sleep hungry, your body will keep you awake, searching for food and nutrients if you're underfed/ overtrained.

Once we begin to dip below the 8-hour minimum for sleep, our body cannot sufficiently mend from training the day before. And if we start to string sleepless nights together, we'll find that we become more injury prone and less likely to complete a goal race or event.

How Do I Know If I'm Getting Enough Sleep?

For many runners, this can be challenging to determine because everyone is different. Some runners can train and continue to make improvements on just 6 hours of sleep a night. However, you're likely to hit a plateau in the long run or increase your chances of getting injured if you get less than 7 - 8 hours of sleep a night regularly.

Take note if you're experiencing: mid-day fatigue or drowsiness, requiring more than one cup of coffee daily, irritability, feeling the need to sleep in, general muscle fatigue beyond the norm, and increased habits of hitting the snooze button. (If you're experiencing one or more of these concerns, follow the list below to establish better sleep habits)

Mental Capacity And Sleep Deprivation For Runners

Many runners experience sleeplessness the night before a big goal race. Whether it be the nerves or concerns about oversleeping and not making it to the starting line on time, a restless night before a big race is more common than you might imagine. However, in the week leading up, and especially the 72 hours leading up to the race, sleep is of utmost importance for mental clarity.

Consider sleeping like a bank account with a goal to deposit 8 hrs each night leading up to the race. If you sleep just 6 hours on Wednesday night, you're heading into the event -2 hours of sleep deprivation. Or if you manage only 6 hours of sleep three nights during race week, you'll arrive at the starting line -6 hours sleep-deprived, and this may have grave mental implications.

Misjudging paces, missing essential fueling opportunities, or worse, missing a course marking can quickly derail any opportunities to meet your goal time. And it's been reported that people often become more impulsive and prone to risk-taking during times of fatigue.

What Are The Stages Of Sleep

Sleep is divided into two categories: (REM) or rapid eye movement sleep and (Non-Rem) sleep. The ladder (Non-REM) is separated into three stages. Typically you transition through all stages multiple times during the night. And allowing enough time (8 - 10 hours) for your body to transition appropriately through all stages is recommended to maximize recovery and performance.

Stage 1 (Non-REM) - Transition phase from wakefulness to light sleep

Stage 2 (Non-REM) - Transition phase from light sleep to deep sleep

Stage 3 (Non-REM) - *Deep sleep (Recovery and rebuilding)

Stage 4 (REM) - Rapid eye movement phase (Dream phase)

According to sleep tracker and performance company WHOOP, REM sleep maximizes recovery for brain health, and mental capacity, while deep sleep is necessary for muscle repair and growth.

How To Promote Healthy Sleep Habits

Develop a nighttime routine, and stick to it

  • Our body gets used to patterns and routines. Consistently going to sleep and waking up at the same time, even on the weekends and during vacations, help to regulate sleep cycles.

Limit screen time before bedtime

  • Exposure to light close to bedtime can affect your body's natural ability to produce melatonin. "Melatonin is a hormone the body produces in response to darkness." ~ NIH This hormone helps regulate sleep cycles.

Avoid caffeine after 2 pm

  • It can take up to 5 - 6 hours for caffeine to be metabolized in the body. Some people are at risk of being hyper-sensitive to caffeine and may need to consider limiting caffeine intake even earlier.

Limit alcohol consumption

  • Alcohol is a natural depressant. It can create a false sense of drowsiness, making some think it's aiding in sleep. Unfortunately, most alcoholic beverages contain significant amounts of sugar, which can prevent restful sleep. Alcohol use and dependence is associated with chronic sleep disturbance.

Keep naps brief

  • Naps can be extremely valuable as a tool to recharge midday. However, naps lasting longer than 20 min have been shown to negatively affect sleep cycles.

Reduce bedroom temperature

  • Studies show that people tend to get more restful sleep when bedroom temperatures are set between 66 - 68 degrees. Pull out a heavier blanket if needed. Your brain and head respond better to sleep when exposed to cooler temps while the body is covered.

Stop tracking your sleep

  • Tracking sleep can actually create additional stressors because people can become fixated on getting sleep. If you insist on tracking sleep, try reviewing progress no more than on a weekly basis.

"Sleep is extremely important to me - I need to rest and recover in order for the training I do to be absorbed by my body" ~ Usain Bolt