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There are good reasons for this. Physically, this is the time your body repairs and regenerates itself as hormones are released which stimulate muscle growth and repair and help with bone health. If you are sleep-deprived your body is not given enough time for this to happen. Mentally, your reactions become slowed, your memory becomes less efficient and you are less likely to remember something you recently learned.
Research has shown how the effects of sleep deprivation (generally taken to mean regularly getting less than six hours a night) on the immune system actually mirrors the effects of physical stress.1 This not only puts us at greater risk of illness and injury it effectively means we become less productive with recent research suggesting if more of us regularly got six to seven hours nightly the UK economy could be boosted by £40 billion a year.2 We appear to be working longer hours but sleeping less and this is making our performance at work worse. But being tired pretty much affects everything we do, including our ability to exercise.
We know that a good diet, keeping well-hydrated, the right fitness gear and training all contribute to how well we do at our chosen sport. But sleeping is equally crucial as mounting evidence shows how it boosts performance as well as helping your body recover after exercise. For competitive or semi-competitive athletes, the quality and quantity of it can be what gives them the winning edge. Even those of us who just exercise regularly to keep fit can find motivation dwindles if we're tired and if we're half asleep and unfocused we potentially become more at risk of hurting ourselves and then having to take a break from exercising full stop.
One US study found injury rates amongst young athletes increased following a night where they managed to get less than eight3 hours sleep. Exercise often calls for as much mental agility as it does physical strength or ability so remembering, for example, how to master a machine or move in the gym or perfecting that tennis serve your instructor showed you should not only make you better at your chosen sport it will also help reduce the risk of you injuring yourself through bad technique.
Equally, if you've been lying awake tossing and turning or just got a few snatched hours of rest research shows your reaction times could be equivalent to, or slower than if you have been drinking alcohol.4 In other research basketball players who got an extra couple of hours were found to become five per cent faster and nine per cent more accurate than players who didn't. A study that followed a university women's tennis team for five weeks as they tried to get 10 hours of sleep showed the ones who got the most sleep ran faster and hit more accurate shots.5 The evidence speaks for itself.
Ideally to be on top of your game you need to be getting at least seven hours, preferably more each night. If you are training for a major competition or event, say a marathon, try to sleep even more several weeks beforehand and factor this into your training schedule. There is evidence to show that people who exercise regularly do tend to sleep better but to get an extra shot at quality sleep eat a nutrient-rich diet with plenty of sleep-inducing foods containing tryptophan and melatonin (chicken, turkey, bananas, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cherries); try a soothing drink like cherry juice or hot chocolate before bed and take a supplement like 5-HTP - used by the body to make melatonin (the hormone that induces drowsiness and sleep) an hour before you turn in.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Diurnal rhythms in blood cell populations and the effect of acute sleep deprivation in healthy young men, Newsletter of the Association of Sleep Disorders Centers
2Why Sleep Matters: Quantifying the Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep, Rand.org
3Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes, Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics
4Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication, Occupational and environmental medicine
5Sleep Extension Improves Athletic Performance And Mood, Science Daily