Good sleep is more than just a “marginal gain” by Craig Lewis

With the Winter Olympics having just come and gone, and many other sporting events about to get up and running, I often sit and marvel at the extraordinary ability of top-level athletes. 

They are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we feel is achievable and just when we think “that can never be beaten”, another athlete comes along and does just that. We are living in an era where the science of sport is becoming ever more relevant as we chase those so-called marginal gains, where every split second, centimetre or bad decision could mean the difference between gold and anonymity.

However, in our quest to reach the peak, could the world of sports science sometimes be accused of trying to almost re-invent the wheel? For example, have we completely removed the “feel” element that so many of the great coaches intuitively had in a previous era and replaced it with data and cold hard facts? Do we still speak to our athletes and really find out how they are doing, instead of placing some laboratory-based tool on their head in order to produce that answer? Maybe, but hopefully not…

In the field of recovery and regeneration, which has seen a massive shift in the trends and equipment on offer, are we looking for answers which have always been right in front of us? Which leads me to the particular crux of this discussion: the power of sleep! We have introduced cryo-saunas, cryo-chambers and numerous other compression devices to assist and aid the recovery of elite athletes. While these have shown from research, as well as anecdotally, to marginally improve recovery, there is still no substitute for a good night’s rest!

A reduction in sleep, whether over the short term or for an extended period of time, has been shown to have multiple negative effects on the body in terms of athletic performance. Sleep deprivation over an extended period of time has been shown to have negative effects on the following mental and physical bodily functions:

  • - Learning, memory and cognitive function
  • - Pain perception
  • - Immunity from disease
  • - Inflammation
  • - Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis
  • - Appetite and food intake or food choices 

Other studies have found similar disturbing trends with regard to poor sleep patterns, such as:

  • - Impaired cognitive function and mood
  • - Disturbed glucose metabolism
  • - Negative consquences for appetite regulation
  • - Negative impact on immune function

In addition to the above, prolonged periods of reduced sleep have also been shown to have an alarming impact on the management and prevention of injury. Other studies have also shown that athletic performance (including physical parameters such as: intermittent sprint performance, explosive strength and dynamic strength) were also negatively affected as a result of sleep deprivation.

Consequently, if we look at all of the above factors and understand the massive impact that poor sleep patterns can have on performance, it almost becomes a “no brainer”. If we want to improve performance, reduce the risk of injury, allow for regeneration to occur and increase our ability to withstand disease, we have no other choice but to get a good night’s rest! Of course, in this modern world (with all its latest gadgets and technology) and amongst the current generation of athletes who have grown up with the world at their fingertips, this can sometimes seem like a herculean task, but that is the choice which must be overcome to sometimes achieve athletic greatness. Ultimately, if we can harness the power of sleep, it may just lead to a brighter tomorrow.

See Craig in action at this year’s Certificate of Integrative Sports Nutrition.