Sleep, Performance, and Cognition

I was catching up on the Learner Lab Podcast and it brought up the importance of sleep in cognition and motion (i.e. athletic) performance…

Sleep, Performance, and Cognition

I was catching up on the Learner Lab Podcast and it brought up the importance of sleep in cognition and motion (i.e. athletic) performance. Sleep is on my “to do list” as far as “biohacking” things to hone in on in 2021. Or rather, habits to build.

Now, it’s no secret that sleep is important for our immune system and other health functions (e.g. you need to rest your body to get / stay strong). In strength training terms; training makes you weak and rest makes you strong(!). But, as I’ve discussed before, training a certain motor pattern (hitting a baseball, your favorite submission in BJJ, bowling, etc.) isn’t just about physical output, it’s about memory and learning the most efficient way to move your body through space to accomplish those things.

“While the functions of sleep remain largely unknown, one exciting hypothesis is that sleep contributes importantly to processes of memory and brain plasticity. Over the last decade, a large body of work has provided substantive evidence supporting this role of sleep in what is becoming known as sleep-dependent memory processing.”1

That publication was in 2008, but the idea has also been investigated in 2006 ( 2) and 2001 ( 3). Two studies from 2007 concluded:

“We found that, during sleep, reactivation of spatiotemporal patterns was coherent across the network and compressed in time by a factor of 6 to 7. Thus, when behavioral constraints are removed, the brain’s intrinsic processing speed may be much faster than it is in real time. Given recent evidence implicating the medial prefrontal cortex in retrieval of long-term memories, the observed replay may play a role in the process of memory consolidation.” ( 4)
“There is now compelling evidence that sleep promotes the long-term consolidation of declarative and procedural memories. Behavioral studies suggest that sleep preferentially consolidates explicit aspects of these memories, which during encoding are possibly associated with activation in prefrontal-hippocampal circuitry” ( 5)

Now, let’s get specific to athletes and performance. A 2015 review ( 6) starts with a summary of what we’ve already covered; “Although its true function remains unclear, sleep is considered critical to human physiological and cognitive function.” These authors also note that “sleep loss is a common occurrence prior to competition in athletes.” Several great points are mentioned herein:

  • “…research indicates some maximal physical efforts and gross motor performances can be maintained”; but note that we’re talking about gross not fine motor patterns here (bench pressing vs. bowling; walking vs. throwing a perfect touchdown pass). “…the few published studies investigating the effect of sleep loss on performance in athletes report a reduction in sport-specific performance.”
  • “…it appears a reduction in sleep quality and quantity could result in an autonomic nervous system imbalance, simulating symptoms of the overtraining syndrome.” Wouldn’t you rather be well rested mentally and physically before the big game?
  • “…increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines following sleep loss could promote immune system dysfunction.” So, we have a higher potential for inflammation and nerve injury when we’re sleep deprived (7).
  • “…numerous studies investigating the effects of sleep loss on cognitive function report slower and less accurate cognitive performance.” Similar to driving a car then, throwing that perfect pass or knockout combination requires processing hundreds of factors and variables almost instantly. Why would we think processing them slower wouldn’t have adverse effects on overall performance?

The article concluded that “Given the equivocal understanding of sleep and athletic performance outcomes, further research and consideration is required to obtain a greater knowledge of the interaction between sleep and performance.” The article that actually caught my attention was just published last year (March 2020) and pulls together everything we’ve talked about so far with the title “ Sleep and Athletic Performance: Impacts on Physical Performance, Mental Performance, Injury Risk and Recovery, and Mental Health” ( 8).

“Sleep is a fundamental component of performance optimization among elite athletes, yet only recently embraced by sport organizations as an important part of training and recovery.”* We need to pause for a minute. Pull that apart. Sleep is not only important for training and recovery, but performance as an independent factor. As we’ve already mentioned; These conclusions were congruent with the findings of a previous review done in 2017 ( 9).”

To recap, training is literally just the tip of the iceberg. To get the most out of our training sessions we need to be recovered, mentally and physically. TO accomplish that we need good quality and volume of sleep. What’s more is that to perform optimally, regardless of our level of training, we need even more quality sleep!

Sweet dreams,


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