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Sleep is a Powerful Player in Performance. How Much is Enough?

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

It was summer, the mountains were out, and Seattle was having a crazy run of consecutive days without rain.


In the Pacific Northwest, anyone who loves the outdoors has at least some level of anxiety about missing a single bluebird day—and is compelled, come hell or high water, to get out when the gettin’ is good. There is no planned weekend off in the summer: you take a day off when it rains, and it will eventually rain. But somehow, this particular summer, it did not rain for a record-breaking stretch between May and late September.


(Almost) too much of a good thing

I hit so many great climbs that year. Month after month, I climbed relentlessly, knowing sunny weekends are fleeting.


My pattern was to jet out of town early Friday morning to make a trailhead arrival at dawn after a 2-4 hour drive. Once on the trail, my partners and I would hike, climb, and ascend Alpine terrain that includes technical climbing for 12-17 hours, 2-3 days in a row.

Sunday evening, I would roll back into town, rush to unpack and find some groceries to tide me over for the week, and show up to work on Monday at 6:30 am. I would then work 4 eleven-hour days` in a row, pack up on Thursday night for the next weekend trip, and do it all over again.


It was beautiful… until it was not.


The unfortunate (but predictable) results of my sleep-deprived summer


The summer had been amazing, but as it wound down I was nursing knee pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain. They all came on gradually—starting out just as annoyances—but by fall, I could no longer ignore my condition. I was unable to run; I would wake up at night with neck pain; and my gym climbing was suffering due to shoulder pain.


But there is a lesson in this.


By the end of the summer, I was growing increasingly tired. I was averaging less than 6 hours of sleep at night. During my 4-day workweek, I might average as much as 7 hours a night, but combined with the short nights required by alpine starts and making the trailheads by dawn, I was becoming sleep deprived.


Sleep deprivation is bad… But why, exactly?


Though most Americans are known to be sleep deprived, it is not recommended way to live. Beyond the general health risks associated with too little sleep, following are a few ways it can affect your performance:

  • Increased risk of pain and sports injury: Sleep is known to have wide-ranging effects on sports performance and overall well-being. Research has correlated suboptimal sleep with the risk of musculoskeletal pain and sports injury. The amount of sleep that has consistently been found to associate with an increased risk of injury is < 7 hours of sleep sustained over at least 14 days is associated with 1.7 times greater risk of injury. Studies also show that suboptimal sleep more consistently predicts next-day pain rather than pain predicting next-night sleep loss.

  • Increased risk of fatigue-related injury: Other authors defined a specific disease called “fatigue-related injuries” in association with 6 hours of sleep the night before the injury and see reduced sleep as a direct risk factor for injuries during exercise. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of over-strain injuries and could be linked to the decrease of proprioception (our ability to perceive where we are in space), related to balance, postural control, and reaction time.

  • Impaired repair and recovery: Recent sleep loss also impairs the functional recovery of muscles following injury. Specifically, 8 hours of sleep deprivation significantly downregulated activity in pathways that repairs muscle damage and triggered a reduction in muscle contraction during recovery. These findings highlight the role of sleep in the regeneration of damaged muscle tissue.

That’s the bad news about sleep deprivation. However, there are plenty of benefits to be had from getting sufficient sleep, including:

  • Improved athletic and cognitive performance: Mah et al. studied the impact of extended sleep over 5-7 weeks on physical performance in young basketball players. Extended sleep contributes to improved athletic performance, especially in shooting percentage and sprint times. Cognitive performance (reaction time), mood, fatigue, and vigor were also improved with increased sleep.

  • Protecting against future deprivation: One week of sleep extension (10 hours in bed per day) improved resilience to upcoming sleep reduction showing that creating a “sleep bank” may be a protective countermeasure to subsequent sleep deprivation.

So how much sleep is recommended for good health and peak performance?


The findings mentioned above are consistent with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society consensus statement, which recommends that adults (ages 18-60 years) obtain at least 7 hours of sleep per night on a regular basis.


This is further supported by a systematic review concluding that a chronic lack of sleep is associated with a greater risk of sports and musculoskeletal injuries in athletes.


Small changes for a more sustainable outdoor climbing season


Would I do anything different for future seasons of sunny climbing? I certainly would not climb less, but I would sleep more—and be more mindful of planning my time to help prioritize getting that sleep.


To make up for some of the weekend deprivation, a late start to work on Monday mornings would be a reasonable accommodation. In addition, I could organize my climbs such that “lazier” weekends of sport climbing (which don’t typically require pre-dawn starts) were interspersed between Alpine accents. And lastly, I would go to bed earlier during the week to ensure I get 8 hours of sleep (and maybe even add to my “sleep bank”).


Hands-down, it is much better to adjust my habits than to be forced to sit out due to injury.


Sources

1) Huang, Kevin DO; Ihm, Joseph MDSleep and Injury Risk, Current Sports Medicine Reports: June 2021 - Volume 20 - Issue 6 - p 286-290

2) Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep. 2011 Jul 1;34(7):943-50. doi: 10.5665/SLEEP.1132. PMID: 21731144; PMCID: PMC3119836.

3) Consensus Conference Panel, Watson N, Badhr S, Belenky G, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. J. Clin. Sleep Med. 2020; 11:591–2.




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