Why do we need to sleep?
Simply put, the purpose of sleep is to allow you to function during the daytime. Delving into this in a bit more detail, good sleep health plays a role in attaining psychological, emotional, and physical health, wellbeing, and performance. When the timing, quality, and duration of your sleep have been adequate, you may notice your ability to attend to information is greater. You can concentrate for longer, you feel more alert (and less sleepy), and your mood is more stable. Overall, you feel more motivated to perform daily tasks than if you slept inadequately.
Sleep and performance: a complex relationship
What about the role of sleep in supporting a training regime for a physical challenge or a big race? These general functions of sleep still apply. So, when the timing, quality, and duration of your sleep are persistently inadequate, you can become less motivated to train. You may experience your training as more effortful, and you may feel lethargic before even putting on your trainers.
It is worth noting at this stage, though, that 1–2 nights of disrupted or shortened sleep are unlikely to affect your ability to exercise or perform during training or, even less so, a race. That means the sleep disturbance you usually experience the night before a big race is expected and should not concern you.
What does sleep look like in the best athletes in the world?
If we want to gain insight into the role of sleep in sporting performances, looking at how the best athletes in the world sleep seems like a reasonable place to start, right? Sadly, research looking into the sleep health of elite athletes is in relatively short supply.
Nonetheless, scientists accept that the relationship between sleep health and elite athletic performance is circular: Your sleep health can affect your athletic performances and being an athlete or following a strict training regime can affect your sleep health.
Generally, we know that exercising frequently can be beneficial for sleep health (Chennaoui et al. 2015). Following exercise, you may notice your sleep becomes more restful, more continuous, and feels ‘deeper’ and more restorative (Youngstedt, 2005). You may be surprised then to hear that elite athletes who do superhuman amounts of exercise do not exhibit superhuman sleep health.
“Good sleep health is characterised by subjective satisfaction, appropriate timing, adequate duration, high efficiency, and sustained alertness during waking hours.” (Buysse et al. 2014)
Does super sleep equal super performance?
Now, the jury is still out on whether elite athletes need to be super sleepers. Still, you might take comfort in that even the best athletes in the world experience disrupted sleep from time to time. Even though it may not seem like it when they perform, they are only human at the end of the day.
We know that elite athletes can experience disrupted sleep many times over the course of a season. Their sleep is challenged by three main aspects: the demands of training, the stress of competing, and the frequency of travel (Gupta et al. 2017).
Challenges to sleep do not depend on your performance level
These challenges are equally real for any athlete training for a physical challenge, a big race, or the Olympic Games. Just think about the scheduling of training around work and family commitments, the daily pressures of training enough, the early start to get to the big race, the night-before-big-race-nerves, and the night after the big race, when it hurts just to climb into bed. All this challenges your sleep in a similar way to how it does in an elite athlete.
I want you to take away two points here: First, know that persistently good sleep health will help you meet the psychological, physical, and emotional demands of your training. Second, appreciate that by completing a hard training regime for a race, your sleep health is likely to be challenged along the way.
Figure 1. The circular relationship between sleep health and athletic performance
Is sleep challenged more in female than in male athletes?
While research on the sleep of elite athletes is in short supply, research into the sleep of elite female athletes is in really short supply. When we reviewed the sport sleep research a few years ago, we found that female athletes were included in only 21% of all studies (Gupta et al. 2017). Clearly, us scientists have our work cut out when it comes to investigating sleep in female athletes. Nonetheless, based on the few studies conducted and research outside of sport, we can make some inroads to answering this question.
Currently, the research on sex differences in elite athletes is not clear. For example, one study showed that French female athletes were more likely to experience at least one sleep problem in their lifetime than their male counterparts (Schaal et al. 2011). In another study, Brazilian male athletes experienced greater sleep disruption than female athletes (Silva et al. 2019). We need more evidence here.
Sleep health in women in general
Outside of elite sport, there is more research and more of a consensus. In general, the sleep health of women tends to be poorer. Women are at greater risk of developing sleep disorders than men across all ages (Leger et al. 2000). Key biological events across women’s lifespan are potential triggers kicking off a bout of poor sleep health. These are menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. Sleep complaints are common in the lead up to and during menstruation and menopause, during pregnancy, and after giving birth. It is worth noting that we are only just beginning to explore the role of the female reproductive hormones (and other related hormones) in how sleep is controlled, and how they interact with different aspects of sleep health. One possible link could be a casual rise in body temperature at night that might disrupt sleep (Sharke et al. 2014). Such events may explain, in part, the differences in sleep health between males and females.
Emotions and genetics affect sleep
The psychological and emotional experience of these events will also impact sleep health in some athletes. For example, from their first menstruation, women are more likely to experience mood fluctuations than men. This can influence their sleep health and vice versa (Meers and Nowakoswi, 2020).
Moreover, the genetic differences that make us male or female lead to inherent differences in our physical, psychological, and emotional wiring and may also directly influence sleep health (Hajali et al. 2019). For example, female sleep appears to be more ‘reactive’ than male sleep. This means that when placed under any form of sleep challenge, sleep is more likely to be disrupted in women than men (Palagini et al. 2016).
So, back to our question of whether sleep is more challenged in female than in male athletes? The answer is, for now, possibly more so. Why female sleep is more disrupted, we are not quite sure yet. This means, when you train for a big race, you may face different challenges to your sleep: You may, for example, be before menstruation or in the transition to menopause. At the same time, your early morning training schedule or worry about the race day may be playing a role.
Figure 2. Challenges to sleep health in women
Neither males nor females can sleep their way to the finish line
The link between sleep and athletic performance is very complex. There is currently little evidence to suggest that having good sleep health will improve your chances of winning a big race. Unfortunately, you cannot sleep your way to the finish line! Nonetheless, some aspects of your sport performance are more likely to be affected by disrupted sleep: While physical performance has been shown to be less affected, both the psychological (e.g. reactive time) and emotional components (e.g. mood, motivation) of performance have been shown to be affected more so (Fullagar et al. 2015).
How does sleep affect female athletic performance?
Sex differences in how sleep affects daytime performance within these components have not been investigated extensively in athletes, if at all. The differences between men and women in response to being awake for a long time and not sleeping much in non-athletes have been investigated more, even though not extensively (Alhola and Polo-Kantola, 2007). However, the findings may help us begin to understand how male and female athletes differ in this regard.
We have some evidence that sex differences in psychological function exist in response to and recovery from being awake for a long time. In one study, young women’s reaction times in a computer-based test were less affected by being awake for 38 hours than those of men (Corsi-Cabrera et al. 2003). That means female athletes may be able to better preserve some aspects of daytime psychological function after being awake for a long time.
Conversely, reaction times remained impaired in women but were fully restored in men after being given nine hours to recover lost sleep. This suggests that women may require more sleep than men to recover their full psychological function after prolonged wakefulness (Corsi-Cabrera et al. 2003).
How can we translate these findings into the real world? My take home message here is that some psychological aspects of athletic performance are less affected by sleepless nights before a big race in female than in male athletes. Despite this, the sleep needs of female athletes to restore psychological function following sleepless nights may be different to men. Still, much more research is needed in this area.
So, what have we learnt about sleep and performance?
First, good sleep health is important for all athletes. Second, sleep health is challenged in both elite and non-elite athletes from time-to-time, possibly more so in female than in male athletes. Third, even though overall performance is unlikely to be affected by 1–2 nights of disrupted sleep, differences may exist between males and females in their responses to staying awake for a long time.
Overall, your sleep plays a part in the attainment of performance, but it is also remarkably adaptable to challenge. So, planning a few longer days, now and then, to squeeze in training around the challenges of daily life during your preparation may go further to benefiting your performance than prioritising sleep all the time. At the end of the day, it is your training and preparation that will most benefit your performance.
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