Performance Tanking Lately? Why It May Have Nothing to do with Training or Nutrition

You are diligent about your post-workout shake, try to make time for mobility and would never dream of grabbing a loaded barbell to lift the second you walk into the gym.

But, if you’re like the majority of athletes today, you still aren’t sleeping. Not for quality, not for quantity and not enough for your body to repair, regenerate and —yes— recover from the demands of your training. And that means you’re leaving a big piece of the puzzle on the table, one just as important as your nutrition or even drinking water during your workout.

What if you were told there was a way to reduce the chemicals associated with stress, naturally increase your human growth hormone and enhance your performance with an improved recovery rate? That’s exactly what optimal sleep does.

 “In years past people would think of sleep as an unchanging variable,” said owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, Dr. Chris Winter, who is a board-certified and nationally-recognized sleep medicine doctor. “Now, it’s taking its position next to hydration, nutrition and conditioning as a modifiable performance factor, not just for athletic performance, but optimal health.”

Numerous studies have shown that just one night of restlessness has the equivalent effect on your body as consuming several alcoholic drinks. Prolonged lack of sleep, or athletes who struggle during the work week to get the recommended rest, are dealing with major cognitive function issues, a slower reaction time and are more susceptible to injury.

Sleeping beauty

No nutrition or smart programming can save you from that.

 “The impact of impaired sleep or deprivation is easily what alcohol is and probably surpasses it,” Winter said. “When somebody is drunk they are generally aware they are drunk. When someone doesn’t get enough sleep, they still think most of the time they can function. It can be even more dangerous.”

Particularly when there’s heavy weight or high intensity involved. Poor sleep wreaks havoc on the body’s ability to create muscle, lift heavy weights as efficiently as possible and maximize metabolize conditioning.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours a night for adults, but athletes demands are often greater. And, in the age of activity trackers and food logs, sleep tracking is becoming more and more popular as people take charge of their own health.

“There is such a big surge right now in finding ways to get better solutions, rather than hacking through with PEDs or other sort of cheats,” Winter said. “People are discovering the benefits of actually treating the body better.”

Sleep is big business in pro sports, where the National Basketball Association cut down on back-to-back games and added more off days to its postseason schedule this year. Winter did a three-year study of 80 Major League Baseball players (2010-12) and concluded that 72 percent of the players involved who had the lowest levels of sleepiness were still in the League. Among those who were twice as sleepy that number was 39 percent and just 14 percent of those with Epworth Sleepiness scores three times as high as the first group were still playing pro baseball.

 In 2011, a study done by Stanford’s Cheri Mah —considered one of the world’s top experts on sleep and athletic performance— tracked the nightly sleep of 11 Stanford men’s basketball players. Over that time period, the group’s sleep steadily increased toward the goal of spending 10 hours in bed nightly. By the end of the trial, free throw accuracy by the group was up nine percent, three-point accuracy was up 9.2 percent and their sprint times were faster. The group also reported better physical and mental well-being.


“Overall there is growing interest in sleep from teams and athletes across all the professional leagues as proper sleep is frequently sacrificed and overlooked; however [it] can have a significant impact on daytime functioning, performance, and overall health,” said Mah, who has worked with teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB on improving sleep.

“In the last few years, more teams and athletes have keyed in on sleep as an area they recognize they frequently overlook and often have not optimized this component of recovery and performance as much as other modalities such as training or nutrition.”

While the obvious solution is to get more sleep, it can be impossible for most people —especially those who aren’t full-time, professional athletes — to schedule naps or get into bed earlier. But there’s plenty of other ways, from finding your ideal sleep temperature to changing what you sleep in and your nighttime routine, to help optimize the time you do spend in bed.

We talk more about easy ways you can optimize your sleep —and what tools may help you—  in Part 2 of this sleep series here.