We still don’t know why we sleep, but we know it’s important for both physical and mental activity. When it comes to athletic performance, a good night’s rest of seven to nine hours is paramount for one’s best performance and reducing the chance of injury. The most notable effects of lack of sleep are mental impairments such as slower reaction times, cognitive fog, poor emotional regulation, and in some extreme cases, hallucinations. However, sleep may be just as important for physical activity as it is for mental operation.
A recent study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine tracked a group of college-level swimmers and their athletic performances. Their sprint time, reaction time off the block, and turn time were measured for two weeks as they slept their normal amount. After two weeks they were asked not to reduce their amount of sleep, but to increase it to 10 hours a night. According to this study, “After obtaining extra sleep, athletes swam a 15 meter sprint 0.51 seconds faster, reacted 0.15 seconds quicker off the blocks, improved turn time by 0.10 seconds and increased kick strokes by 5.0 kicks.” This clearly illustrates how critical adequate sleep is for achieving one’s peak athletic performance, especially in sports such as swimming, where at the higher levels, half a second is a huge amount of time.
If you love being active and want to be able to increase your endurance, sleep may be your body’s best friend. Sleep deprivation has been linked to rates of exhaustion. One study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that participants who stayed awake for 36 hours became exhausted 40 percent faster. However, temporary exhaustion is not usually a major roadblock to an active life because one can always rest and then get back to physical activity.
Injury, however, is much more serious and can eliminate one’s ability to perform certain physical tasks for the rest of a season, and in some cases, the rest of one’s life. Another study published by the National Institute of Health demonstrated that hours of sleep per night is the best independent predictor of injury for adolescent athletes. Athletes in this study who got less than eight hours of sleep a night were 70 percent more likely to have an injury. Sleep not only improves peak performance but is also critical to ensuring that one will be able to remain active for a longer period of their life.
Not only does good sleep increase the period in one’s life when they can be physically active, but not getting enough sleep (less than 5 hours a night) increases one’s chances of mortality by 12 percent, according to the Sleep Research Society. Throughout my life, I have met people who pride themselves on their ability to “function” on few hours of sleep, but this “you can sleep when you’re dead” mentality is detrimental to health and happiness. Sleep, and its cognitive and physical benefits should never be underestimated.