How Even a Little Sleep Loss Hinders Your Athletic Performance

Losing sleep reduces motivation and momentum

You know you aren’t at your best when you don’t get enough sleep, right? Tired, cranky, forgetful, stressed — does that sound like you after a short night?

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But shorting yourself on sleep takes a toll on more than your mood. It can hurt your athletic performance. And getting extra sleep actually can give you a boost on your next run or the next time your team takes the field or court for a game.

Small losses can add up to big effects

Missing small amounts of sleep may not make or break your marathon time, says sleep disorder specialist Ralph Downey III, PhD. But it can change your performance in small ways that add up.

“Even for a weekender who runs a 5K and has sleep loss, their time may decrease by a couple of minutes, which can make a big difference in how you place in a race,” he says. “Or a change in free throws by 1 percent may make the difference in your team winning or losing a game.”

Sports with the biggest impact from sleep

Doctors see the biggest detriment in lost sleep for those in endurance sports, Dr. Downey says. You’re less likely to see an impact in athletic events like weightlifting, where you need short bursts of energy.

This is mainly because lack of sleep reduces motivation, a key driver in maintaining performance in endurance sports.

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With these sports, runners or cyclists often hit a wall at some point and motivation is what helps them push through to the finish. The less sleep you have, the less likely you are to summon that motivation when you need it, Dr. Downey says.

“Loss of sleep never helped anyone, but it affects endurance sports more so than sports of limited duration,” he says.

How extra sleep helps

If losing sleep hinders your athletic ability, then it makes sense that getting extra sleep will improve it. And some studies bear out that hypothesis.

In 2011, researchers looked at the sleep patterns and output of players on Stanford University’s men’s varsity basketball team. They reported in the journal SLEEP that when players boosted their sleep from an average of fewer than seven hours a night to 8.5 hours over a five- to seven-week period, their performance improved.

They cut their sprint times from 16.2 seconds to 15.5. They free throw percentage improved about 9 percent and their three point percentage improved about 6 percent. Their mood and reaction time also improved over the period and fatigue lessened.

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“You’ve done all of this conditioning and eating great nutrition, and everyone else is doing that, too. But if we improve sleep we get another edge,” Dr. Downey says.

How much sleep is enough?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting at least this amount of sleep, depending on your age:

  • School-aged children – nine to 11 hours
  • Teenagers – eight to 10 hours
  • Adults older than 18 – seven to nine hours

Dr. Downey says applying guidelines to everyone is tricky, however. Everyone has their own optimal sleep time. To figure out your personal baseline,  pay attention over time to how much sleep you need to stay alert during the day and function well.

Whatever your optimal number is, it’s easier to get enough sleep if you maintain a regular sleep schedule, he says. And, if you can’t seem to get enough at night, adding daytime naps can help you reduce your deficit.

If you want to boost your athletic performance, sleep as close to your baseline as possible in the week leading up to a competition. And extend that number by a couple of hours for a few nights right before the big race or game. Your mood won’t be the only thing that improves.