Can Sleeping for 8 Hours Improve Athletic Performance?

It was still dark outside at 4:00 am when my alarm started blaring. The red and blue police lights from the street below swirled through the room of the dingy hotel just off of Lombard Street in San Francisco where I had spent the night. I could hear the sound of cars, horns, people all through the night. On top of it all…I had what some of us triathletes call the “pre-race jitters.” “Did I sleep at all?”, I asked myself as I slowly got out of bed. I prepared my instant oatmeal that I brought and drank a small cup of coffee. I finally got my gear on, put my tri bag on my back and carried my bike down the stairs and outside. I rode past the guy in handcuffs just under my window and headed for the race site. I was feeling both excited and nervous to compete in my first Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.

In Matthew Walker PhD’s new book, “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” He explains why getting 8 hours (not 5, 6 or 7 hours) of sleep is key to athletic performance. Cutting ourselves short of these extra hours can have a huge impact on athletic performance, especially when the difference between winning and losing can come down to hundredths of seconds.

Through his research, Walker reveals that it is not just practice that “makes perfect,’ but rather, “practice, with sleep, that makes perfect.” He explains that the term “muscle memory” is a misnomer. “Muscles themselves have no memory: a memory that is not connected to the brain cannot perform any skilled actions, nor does a muscle store skilled routines. Muscle memory is, in fact, brain memory.” It turns out that when we sleep for 8 hours, our trained physical habits, like bike riding, running , and swimming, become instinctual habits. Sleep helps automate our learned movement (athletic training), making them “…second nature-effortless…” It turns out that the last two hours of an 8 hour night of sleep, are filled with rich sleep spindles that are directly responsible for this motor skill memory and its ability to turn our hard training into effortless performance.

What could have been different for me on that race day if I had actually slept for 8 full hours?

Here are 3 reasons why sleeping less than 8 hours will reduce athletic performance:

1. Physical exhaustion happens 10-30% faster and aerobic output is significantly reduced. Walker’s studies showed that without a full 8 hours of sleep sustained muscle strength is reduced. Cardiovascular, metabolic and respiratory capabilities are reduced. Lactic acid builds up faster and even the ability of the body to cool through sweat is impaired.

The burning in my legs as I “ran” up the sand ladder on Baker Beach was overwhelming. When I got to the top of those stairs, my heart was racing. I had a hard time maintaining my heart rate. What might have been different had I got a full night sleep? Would my legs have been able to recover quicker after that steep climb? Could I have caught my breath fast enough to shave at least one minute off of my time?

2. Higher risk of injury. It seems that sleep is the best way to prevent sports injury. Walkers studies show that adolescent athletes who sleep 6 hours have a 72% chance of getting injured, while those that sleep 8 hours have a 32% chance of injury. Interestingly, those who slept 9 hours had a risk of injury of only 15%. Many professional sports teams pay their athletes millions of dollars. These athletes are given all sorts of medical and nutritional care to prevent possible injuries from happening. It seems that from the research, it would be essential for all teams to prioritize an athlete’s sleep.

Thankfully I did not injury myself during the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. I have injured my shoulders and hamstrings during training though. What might have been different if I had made sure I had 8 hours of sleep during training? I may not have lost time doing the things I love like biking and swimming. I could have possibly maintained my fitness level. Who knows, maybe I would have been more fit and shaved off a few more minutes off of my final time.

3. Recovery happens faster with 8 hours of sleep. According to Walker, “Post performance sleep accelerates physical recovery from common inflammation, stimulates muscle repair, and helps restock cellular energy in the form of glucose and glycogen.” It makes sense then that getting 8 hours of sleep post race is just as important to athletic performance.

We train hard for events. When we cross the finish line or finish the game, our competition doesn’t exactly end. We can prepare for the next event by taking good care of our bodies and celebrating our wins and completions by getting 8 hours of sleep post event.

Had I known then about sleep what I know now, I may have done things differently at The Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. Maybe sleeping at home would have been a better choice than sleeping in a hotel, even if it was much closer to the event site. Who knows, I may have taken even 10 minutes off my time. Regardless, it was an adventure of a lifetime.

Walker offers several tips on getting a good night sleep. Here are 3 that could be helpful pre competition:

1. Create a sleep schedule and stick to it. Don’t wait until the day of competition to suddenly start waking up at 5am (or earlier). Calculate what it takes to get 8 hours of sleep and set an alarm for bedtime. Get into a consistent sleep routine so that you wake up on competition day ready to go!

2. Try not to exercise within 2-3 hours of bedtime. It’s harder to get the body’s core temperature down enough to initiate sleep.

3. Create a dark, cool, gadget free bedroom. Eliminating distractions is a great way to set yourself up for solid night sleep.

Sleep Tight!

Sarah Kivel