When University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh recently said he believes that the No. 1 natural steroid is sleep, he voiced what sleep disorder physicians have known for years.
The link between sleep and athletic performance is not anecdotal. Studies show that sleep deprivation can decrease athletic performance, and extending sleep can improve athletic performance.
Sleep and timing
The same system that times sleep and wake (the circadian rhythm) also times peak performance, which can have ramifications for competition times and travel across time zones for competition.
- In NFL games after 8 p.m. on the east coast, west coast teams are twice as likely to beat the point spread than east coast teams. This may be due to the fact that during late games, west coast teams (whose body clocks are still set on Pacific Standard Time) are playing closer to the peak time of physical performance.
- After long-haul travel (6+ time zones) military personnel and elite athletes demonstrate reduced sprint speed, jump velocity, jump height and strength for up to 4-6 days. This is likely due to jet lag, where there is misalignment between the local time and the internal body clock, which disrupts sleep and physical performance.
In studies about sleep loss and timing, researchers have found:
- Sleep deprivation up to 3 hours reduces performance in bench press, leg press and deadlifts.
- The longer it takes to fall asleep, the shorter the duration of next-day exercise in non-athletes.
- After sleep deprivation (up to 4 hours) a 30-minute nap significantly improved 2-mile and 20-mile sprint times.
- Sleep extension of about 100 minutes significantly improved sprint speed and free throw and 3-point shooting percentages by 9% in college basketball players.
College athletes and sleep loss
College athletes are particularly vulnerable to sleep loss due to evening circadian preference (they’re night owls) in combination with early morning practices and the burden of schoolwork and athletic training. In fact, 70% of college students report getting less than 8 hours of sleep per night.
How could sleep loss affect performance?
Sleep loss activates the sympathetic nervous system; increases inflammation; increases the expenditure of energy, even at rest; and impairs glucose metabolism. These physiological contributions could negatively impact physical performance.
In sleep-deprived individuals—both athletes and non-athletes—sleep loss results in decreased alertness, decreased motivation and decreased reaction time. There is also an increase in the degree of perceived exertion and the experience of pain. These psychological factors can also have negative effects on performance.
Tips for better athletic performance
- Always get adequate amounts of sleep duration; this is typically more than 7 hours but some individuals may require more.
- Physical performance peaks in the late afternoon/early evening, if you must compete in the morning, train in the morning; this can decrease the difference in performance.
- Nap at a time that won’t affect your nighttime sleep (e.g., for 45 minutes to 1 hour at 1-2 p.m.).
- Realign your circadian rhythm using bright light exposure and avoidance based on schedule requirements or travel.
- Read more about the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center
- Learn more about Neurosciences at the University of Michigan
Cathy A. Goldstein, M.D., M.S., is a U-M Assistant Professor of Neurology who treats circadian rhythm sleep disorders and sleep-disordered breathing. Her research interests include the relationship between fertility and sleep, as well as how circadian rhythm disruption can negatively impact overall health.
The University of Michigan’s multidisciplinary neuroscience team is made up of more than 70 nationally recognized neurologists and neurosurgeons. Leading the way in brain, spine and nervous system care for close to 100 years, patients have access to services that can be found at only a handful of places as well as cutting-edge treatments with the latest research. Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Michigan Health System have been recognized by U.S. News & World Report numerous times for excellence in patient care.