THE SCIENCE Why does sleep play such an important part in how we perform? Sleep is a remarkably dynamic behaviour that is precisely controlled. It’s not just rest'; it has specific positive functions,’ says Professor Simon Jobson, director of research and knowledge exchange at the University of Winchester. During sleep, the slowdown in bodily function – controlled by the brain – plays a key function in the rest-activity cycle. If an individual is sleep-deprived, they can expect to experience, for example, a loss in muscle mass due to the decreased activity of protein synthesis pathways – this hinders the development and recovery of muscle fibres after damage induced by exercise,’ he explains.
As well as the more physical benefits of rest, sleep enhances performance on a more mental or cognitive level, too. A lack of sleep can impact the neurocognitive state, causing instability in mood and other elements of cognitive performance, such as response to stimuli, and motor function. Therefore, sleep is vital for the maintenance of an optimal mental and physical state,’ says Jobson. A good sleep pattern will also greatly reduce your risk of injury. A lack of sleep also has a negative impact on neuroendocrine and immune systems and, as these systems protect against illness and aid recovery, sleep-induced suboptimal performance will increase the likelihood of illness and injury and, possibly, overtraining,’ says Jobson.
On top of muscle repair, an improvement in cognitive function and injury reduction, there’s a strong link between sleep and pain perception. Sleep deprivation is a form of stress that causes an increase in the level of inflammation within the body,’ explains sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows, who led the Bensons for Beds sport and sleep testing. What that means is that when we know people are sleep-deprived, they have more inflammatory markers and their perception of pain goes up, so this could explain why we found such great gains in pain threshold after nine hours of sleep.’ Therefore feeling well-rested may well mean you get more from your workout, by pushing yourself harder.
Scrimp on sleep and you may also see an impact on the regulation of insulin and availability of glucose, impacting on your energy levels, says Dr Meadows. If we’d kept the sleep deprivation testing going for a couple more weeks, we would have seen an impact on people’s growth hormone levels – think growth, repair and recovery – so that means a detrimental effect on endurance and strength,’ he says. The Bensons for Beds study also found that sleep transcended not just improvements in fitness, but that energy levels significantly increased and a quarter of participants said they felt more selfconfident and positive after a better sleep, while 15 per cent felt healthier.
If you’re engaged in any form of training, sleep is the ultimate performance enhancer, and it needs to be a part of your training regime. You damage your muscles when training, but sleep brings all the repair and recovery, strength and endurance improvements,’ explains Dr Meadows. Ultimately, if you’re scrimping on sleep, you’re scrimping on the potential benefits it’ll bring to your performance,’ he adds.
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