Sean Van Staden
3 minute read
2 Nov 2013
9:00 am

Want to perform at your peak? Go to sleep

Sean Van Staden

Alack of sleep might be the reason you are not performing at your peak in your sport. Sure, you are putting in the hours of hard work, you are eating correctly and you are analysing your performances on a weekly basis.

Sean van Staden

Most days you feel like you are just chasing your tail. The answer may lie in the most underrated and overlooked attribute to performance sleep.

Research suggests that if you are not getting at least eight quality hours of sleep a night for an adult, then expect a whole host of mental and physical problems coming your way.

Processing behaviour

The brain is a very complex and amazing processor and even while you are asleep, it is processing, calculating, and problem solving.

Have you ever woken up in the morning and the answer to your complex problem just so happened to pop into your mind with clarity and calmness?

Just because your problem is out of sight, doesn’t mean it is out of mind. The brain is frantically trying to solve your problem because a primary concern is to get rid of the stresses associated with the problem.

Sport is comprised of a varied degree of conscious and unconscious reactions and responses to the environment in play.

The higher the professionalism of the athlete, the higher the autonomy needed to compete at an elite level. By not having your eight hours of sleep a night, you are affecting the speed and accuracy with which you perform, make decisions, problem-solve and recall plays needed in high-intensity games.

Weight Gain

Even though you are perhaps in a sport that demands a lot of energy expenditure like cycling, running or triathlons, you don’t seem to be losing the weight you should for the amount of time you are spending at your sport.

Sleep-deprived athletes will have a tough time losing weight because of two hormones. Ghrelin and Leptin.

Ghrelin is the “GO” hormone in the body that tells your body when to eat and Leptin is the other hormone that tells your body to stop eating.

Athletes who have less than five hours of sleep a night have a higher level of ghrelin and a lower level of Leptin. By having a lower Leptin count, you will often feel like irritable and want to eat just about anything in sight that is caffeinated and sugary.

The downside to a lower Leptin level is that no matter what quantity of food you eat, you will never really feel full. Research suggests that you have a 50% greater chance of being obese on five hours of sleep a day.


Unfortunately, and thankfully, we are not machines, and after a hard day at the office, as in your sport, your body needs to “shut down” to perform housekeeping duties.

The restoration theory one that researchers have been debating for a while is that one of the most important functions of sleep is to get rid of excess waste and toxins.

Further studies have proved that there is a greater rate of cell division and protein synthesis which is much-needed for the repair and restoration of the muscles after strenuous exercise. There have been two important studies that support the restoration theory.

One was conducted by Gumustekin et al in 2004 and showed that sleep-deprived rats showed that there was a hindrance to their recovery times from skin burns.

Zager et al, in 2007 took it one step further and ran an experiment on two control groups of lab rats. One group was sleep-deprived for 24 hours, and the other had their routine nightly naps.

In just 24 hours, blood analysis showed that the rats that were sleep-deprived had a 20% decrease in their white blood cell count, which is a huge change to the immune system.

What these two research studies tell us is that it is OK to train hard, but if we are not getting enough sleep for the repair process, expect to have a weaker immune system and be constantly out of competition.

The mental and the physical can be seen as two entirely different entities, but the catalyst that allows both entities to perform at peak performance is good old- fashioned eight hours of quality sleep.