The swimmer Michael Phelps has competed in five Olympics and has won 28 medals, 23 of them gold, throughout his swimming career. His success has come through hard work in the pool, in which he swims for over three hours a day. He also does various exercises outside of the pool including weightlifting and running. To keep up this level of exertion, Phelps requires a large amount of rest. He sleeps for over eight hours each night and takes a 2-3 hour nap each day, for a total of 11 hours of sleep (Yomtov). Serena Williams, the famously successful tennis player who has won 2 Grand Slam Tennis Championships, goes to bed at 7 each night (Martin). These athletes rely on sleep. It allows their bodies to recover from the massive stress put on them each day. The relationship between sleep and athletic performance is heavily intertwined through the recovery it offers, in both physical and mental aspects.
Sleep is a necessary human function, yet there is no concrete answer as to why it is essential. A common belief among many scientists, including Vyazovskiy, a psychology expert, is that “Sleep is necessary to provide recovery… it compensates for preceding waking” (8). This theory defines all sleep as recovery sleep. However, some types of sleep provide more recovery such as REM sleep, or deep sleep. REM sleep is when most dreams occur. Athleticism and sleep have a symbiotic relationship in which each benefit from the other. Sleep reverses the effects of fatigue that are typical after a hard workout, and mutually, a hard workout improves sleep quality by increasing time spent in the deep sleep cycle. A study that was done by Oregon State University gave insomniacs a workout regimen for four months. During these four months, the subjects’ sleep was monitored. It was found that the insomniacs received an astounding average of 85 more minutes of sleep each night while on this workout regimen. (Ketchiff 1). This study suggests that the most significant cure for insomnia is exercise. Exercise provides more rest than any other method of sleep deprivation treatment, including prescribed medication. Many athletes have been able to increase sleep quality through an increase of workload on the body. For example, runners adding a few miles to their workout schedule receive a sounder sleep. However, even twenty minutes of moderate exercise increases sleep value significantly.
Sleep also benefits athleticism. Sleeping well after exercise allows muscle tissues to grow creating an increased workload capacity, as well as reversing muscle fatigue. Muscle fatigue negatively influences performance by inhibiting an athlete’s capacity and incorrectly forcing less weary muscles to compensate for the fatigued muscle. This compensation often leads to incorrect form in training and has many negative effects including lowering an athlete’s abilities and causing both major and minor injuries. Sleep also allows an athlete to train more frequently, which ultimately boosts performance. Sleep recovery is maximized by an adequate supply of protein combined with the most important aspect of sleep: not moving. The absence of movement gives the body a break from stressors, allowing it to repair. This lack of movement, allows the body to take amino acids produced from protein intake and turn them into energy. The body is able to build stronger muscles and more mass through repairing broken muscles. When stress is put on a muscle, it breaks down. Microscopic tears form in the tissue. Each time a muscle is torn, it must be repaired. As the body repairs the torn muscle, it fortifies it to prevent similar damage from reoccurring. This means that more stress is required to break down the torn muscle each time it is repaired, making it stronger. This factor of muscle reparation is the reason that weightlifters can lift more weight and runners can run farther over time.
The most important effect of sleep on the body is on the mind. A common anti-alcohol advertisement states that driving while sleep deprived is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. This demonstrates a theory held by many scientists that lack of sleep can have a negative mental impact on attention span, memory, perception, reaction time, and coordination. This makes sleep invaluable to exercise in numerous ways such as education, decision making, and foremost motivation. Most athletic events have a mental component to them. Athletes are required to process information quickly and react appropriately. Without proper sleep, athletes are not able to focus and perceive the needed movements. Also, improved athletic performance is dependent upon the resolve and motivation to work out and exercise hard. A study conducted by Vyazovskiy found that a thirty-minute nap created a large increase in an individual’s performance, both cognitive and physical, which is a large factor in encouraging more exercise over time in pursuit of the original feeling of satisfaction (7). This is why people are generally happier when they are exercising and sleeping regularly, and why exercise and sleep can help depression.
Sleep is crucial to the body’s athletic performance because it provides physical and mental recovery. Sleep and exercise complement each other, each increasing the quality of the other. This leads to an increase in overall health. Through sleep, the body is able to repair and strengthen muscles, which allows progression and decreases injury. Sleep also provides many mental benefits necessary for exercise including improvement of memory, reaction time, coordination, and motivation. Regular exercise also helps people sleep better and increases the time in REM sleep, which is when most of the benefits of sleep occur. This is why major athletes such as Michael Phelps and Serena Williams need their sleep to perform at the top level, and why all athletes require sleep to become the best that they can be. This is also why athletes sleep better after exercising and why all athletes snooze.
Department of Health & Human Services. “Sleep.” Better Health Channel, Department of Health & Human Services, 31 Aug. 2014. Accessed 5 March. 2019
"Findings from Sydney University of Technology Provide New Insights into Sports Medicine (Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise)." Health & Medicine Week, 8 May 2015. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.
Ketchiff, Mirel. "Where sleep and exercise meet." Shape, Mar. 2017, p. 115+. Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Collection. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.
Knufinke, Melanie, et al. "Effects of Natural Between-Days Variation in Sleep on Elite Athletes' Psychomotor Vigilance and Sport-Specific Measures of Performance." Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 17, no. 4, 2018, p. 515+. Health Reference Center Academic. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019
Martin, Chanel. “Serena Williams Says Sleep Is Her Secret Weapon.” Black Enterprise, 28 Sept. 2017. Accessed March 7. 2019.
Vyazovskiy, Vladyslav V. "Sleep, recovery, and metaregulation: explaining the benefits of sleep." Nature and Science of Sleep, vol. 7, 2015, p. 171+. Health Reference Center Academic. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.
Yomtov, Jesse. “Full List of Every Olympic Medal Michael Phelps Has Won.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14 Aug. 2016. Accessed March 7. 2019.