Sleep II. How to sleep like a pro

In sports it is a well-known fact that practice makes perfect. The long, everyday hours of training to become a better athlete are a testament to that. But is seems it is not practice on its own, but practice + sleep that makes perfect.

Sleep is necessary ( see our article on sleeping and exams ) for our brains to transfer information from the short-term memory bank to our long-term memory - aka saving ‘facts’. This is why at times of intense revision, sleep is so important to be able to store and remember learned facts. But many studies have shown that when practising a skill, whether it is practising a tennis backhand or a difficult piece of music, the brain – importantly - also shifts and transfers ‘motor memories’ to brain circuits just below the level of consciousness. This may mean that the morning after a good night’s sleep, you can all of a sudden play that piece of music perfectly, ace that long-distance shot into the basketball hoop, or improve your personal best on the 100 metres, without much thought at all.

This is ground-breaking. This means the brain continues to learn in the absence of further practice. It continues to improve your ‘skill & motor memories’ during sleep as a form of ‘off-line learning”. The science behind it is that sleep spindles (bursts of brain activity) being present in the various stages of sleep, ‘bathe’ (ie. restore and activate) all parts of the brain, but particularly those parts that have been worked out hardest with learning. One could almost say that the brain, during sleep, sort of hands out rewards for effort during wakefulness.

A study by the University of Stanford (CA) claims that extending athletes’ sleep from 8 to 10 hours a night has a very noticeable and measurable effect on their performance. The study states that:

  • Male basketball players ran faster in both half-court and full-court sprints. Their shooting improved by at least 9% for both free throws and three-point shots. The athletes also reported improved physical and mental well-being.
  • Male and female swimmers’ times off the diving blocks were faster; turn times were improved, and kick strokes increased. Times swimming a 15-meter sprint also improved.
  • Varsity tennis players, male and female, who increased their sleep to at least nine hours a week also performed better. The accuracy of the players’ serves increased significantly from about 36% to nearly 42%. The players experienced less sleepiness as well.

On the flip side, it is clear that sleep deprivation negatively affects performance as it reduces the time to physical exhaustion by 30 to 40% (i.e. you get tired much earlier). A lack of sleep also increases injury risk and makes for longer recovery times. For professional athletes, who are always working to improve even 1% and benefit from strong medical, nutritional and psychological support to achieve this, sleep is a free ‘medication’ leading to potentially much more than a 1% performance improvement.

No wonder then that top athletes like Usain Bolt and Roger Federer are fans of sleep. Usain Bolt says that sleeping between 8 and 10 hours a night, is an important part of his training, whilst LeBron James and Roger Federer are rumoured to always want to be able to sleep over 10 hours a night.

Cutting back on sleep to cram in more exercise and practice is actually not effective. It seems that the expression “if you DON’T snooze, you lose” is more apt!

Further reading:

Textbook of Clinical Neurology’ by Susanne Stevens and Wayne Hening, 2007

Handbook of Behavorial Neuroscience’ by Luigi De Gennaro and Maurizio Gorgoni, 2019