Five Ways Athletes Pay the Price for Poor Sleep
There’s no shortage of obstacles blocking a good night’s sleep for elite athletes. They must contend with packed schedules, hours traveling and pain from injuries, plus any effects of caffeine or prescription medications that interfere with sleep.
Many pro sports teams have begun tracking players’ sleeping patterns, according to Daron Roberts, a former assistant NFL coach for the the Kansas City Chiefs, the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, in an effort to mitigate those effects.
“It’s like 1984 meets Moneyball,” he joked. “Football is sort of the final frontier in analytics. It started in baseball and migrated to basketball and is finally gaining traction in the NFL.”
Some effects from insufficient sleep are obvious, such as greater fatigue. But other effects may surprise athletes and their fans, demonstrating not only that adequate, efficient sleep is a necessity but also that these athletes must work even harder if they’re going for the gold.
“Sleep allows the body to recover from the previous day and prepare for the upcoming day,” says Dr. Brian Schulz, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles. “Lack of sleep has been shown to affect glucose metabolism, impair cognitive performance and mood, and interfere with appetite regulation and immune function.”
If the body is having to work twice as hard just to do its normal job, that leaves little extra energy for scoring goals or points.
“The ability of humans to cope with physiological and psychological stressors is critical to athletic performance outcomes,” says Hugh Fullagar, a sport science coordinator at the University of Oregon, whose work focuses on the effects of adjusting soccer players’ bed times.
Here are five ways athletes suffer without enough quality sleep.
1: It’s harder to keep your head in the game.
It takes brains as much as brawn to compete with the best. Focus, concentration and quick decision-making mean just as much as strength, speed and agility, but a 2015 research review from the Sports Medicine journal found those abilities and reaction times suffer without enough shut-eye. “Lack of quality sleep can lead to cognitive deficits such as poor attention, concentration, decreased skills, poor memory and diminished executive functions,” says Dr. Said Soubra, a pulmonologist at Seton Hospital in Austin, Texas. “Sleep deprivation can cause changes in pain perception too,” he says, making pain seem to feel worse—which then makes it harder to sleep.
2: It’s harder to keep your heart in the game.
Attitude is just as important as focus and concentration in sports, and attitude is directly influenced by an athlete’s mood. Research has shown “psychological mood and fatigue states are more affected by sleep disruption than both cognitive and motor performance,” Fullagar says.
3: It’s harder for your metabolism to function properly.
Food is the fuel that powers athletes. But if an athlete’s body isn’t extracting and distributing those nutrients effectively, they will suffer, no matter how tip-top their mind and attitude are. A 2014 research review in the Sports Medicine journal found “changes in glucose metabolism and neuroendocrine function as a result of chronic, partial sleep deprivation may result in alterations in carbohydrate metabolism, appetite, food intake and protein synthesis.” Basically, you’re probably not eating what you need to, and your body has to work harder to turn that food into energy.
4: It takes longer to recover from intense exercise.
Your body converts glucose into glycogen to store energy in your muscles. As the muscles burn off this glycogen, they also sustain millions of tiny tears. The body rebuilds its glycogen stores and repairs all those tears during rest. But muscle damage in sleep-deprived athletes is greater, according to research published in Sports Medicine, either because exercise causes more damage without sleep or the body doesn’t repair it as quickly. Either way, a slow recovery is bad news.
5: It’s harder to stay healthy with injury.
If the body doesn’t have sufficient rest to repair muscles, they’re not in top shape for the next competition. Multiple studies show a higher risk of injury with sleep deprivation, though it’s unclear whether it comes from decreased alertness, inattention, slower speed or poor execution of a specific skill. Inadequate sleep also increases inflammation, which can hinder the immune system and make it harder for the body to fight off infections.
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