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Already we experience many stressors in day-to-day life that make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Take those stressors plus rigorous practices, extensive traveling, and pressure to perform, and that encompasses the life of a professional athlete. Because their work depends on physical performance, athletes have all the more reason to take care of their sleep health.

We know that sleep is necessary for health and productivity, but what do professionals have to say about athletic performance and sleep? As of now, clinical research has yielded mostly broad findings: poorer sleep habits lead to poorer performance, and better sleep habits lead to better physical performance. This is evident in articles by authors such as Fullagar et al., Samuels, Venter, and Thun et al.

There are three ways athletes can be impacted by sleep problems: sleep disorders, sleep deprivation (SD), and sleep restriction (SR). Sleep disorders are distinguishable in that a medical disorder, such as a sleep breathing disorder, inhibits regular sleep. By contrast, SR and SD are behaviorally-driven, with SR reducing sleep duration each night and SD describing lack of sleep over a prolonged period.

Josh James and Sleep Apnea

Houston Astros pitcher Josh James suffered for years from feeling tired and lazy all the time. He finally decided to work with a sleep specialist and received a diagnosis of sleep apnea, a sleep breathing disorder where airway compression/restriction leads to cyclical awakening in the night to regain oxygen. James saw a major performance and life enhancement after he started utilizing a CPAP machine, which forces air in and out of the lungs at night to prevent apnea episodes.

Carlos Gonzalez and Sleep Deprivation

Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez improved his game and batting rate after some doctor-recommended behavioral sleep changes. Gonzalez struggled with his performance after staying up late watching TV and stressing over team travel each night. A sleep specialist suggested to him to sleep in a dark, cool room and eliminate screen time before bed. These minor behavioral changes helped Gonzalez bring the team back to the postseason in 2017.

Both James and Gonzalez exemplify how shifting from a lack of quality sleep to an adequate amount can positively impact sports performance. However, a shift from an adequate amount of sleep to an abundance of sleep can do athletes wonders. Mah et al. measured the performance in basketball players before and after shooting for 10 hours of sleep each night, known as sleep extension. Their results were impressive, with athletes displaying a faster sprint time (16.2 ± 0.61 sec at baseline vs. 15.5 ± 0.54 sec) and improved shooting accuracy (+9% for free throws and +9.2% for 3-point field goals). They also demonstrated a faster reaction time, less daytime sleepiness, and overall improved mood.

While these are exciting findings, the reality is most people don’t have 10 hours to afford to sleep each day, especially athletes with busy travel schedules. Therefore, the main goal is to set sleep goals and practice good sleep hygiene. Like Carlos Gonzalez, it is too easy to rob yourself of sleep time with worries about the next day and late-night TV shows. Minimizing screen time before bed is an easy behavioral remedy. But, if you do have good sleep habits and still find yourself tired and underperforming like Josh James, you could have a more serious sleep disorder. If this sounds like you, contact your primary care physician. Additional sleep information can be obtained at www.somnologymd.com.

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