How Sleep Affects Performance... And Everyday Life


, by Nick Littlehales

Photography by: Realstock1

Sleep used to be sold as the time waster of the daily get-fit-and-be-active, healthy routine. However, it is the (as of yet) unsellable commodity which is the bedrock of world-class performance. Far from being a dormant state, sleep isn’t so much a case of a body at rest, it is our time of recovery, regeneration, and the processing of all the pertinent information.

Research continues to reveal that sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep have a major impact on mental performance and well-being. Actual or perceived low-impact levels of recovery will affect how well our brain can process information, our emotional response to required tasks, mood, motivation, ability to learn new skills, decision-making, reaction times, awareness, alertness, stamina, and relationships.

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Whether you sleep great sometimes, not great most of the time, or can’t get into sleep or stay asleep, life doesn't make allowances. When you are triggered out of sleep or the alarm kicks in, you just crack on with your day, even though in your sleep-deprived state you're a shadow of your usual self - your usual personal best (PB). This can develop as time progresses, creating counterproductive behavioral changes that dominate our everyday lives.

Some believe that sleep is something to do when you have passed away, maybe even a waste of valuable time when you could be doing something more productive. This is not a mindset that I coach in elite athletes worldwide, who want to reveal their personal best more often - if not every day.

It’s time we recognize sleep as the First Health Pillar; mental and physical health are interconnected, and sleep is a key factor.

My experience from more than 20 years of work with elite athletes around the globe clearly indicates that sleep has a major impact on almost all aspects of athletic performance:

Full Human Functionality

Sleep is vital for maintaining optimal physical and mental performance. It impacts:

  • Energy: Adequate sleep replenishes energy levels crucial for workouts.

  • Power: Sleep supports muscle repair and growth, enhancing power output.

  • Strength: Quality sleep aids in building and maintaining muscle strength.

  • Stamina: Sleep helps increase endurance and exercise capacity.

  • Resilience: Good sleep bolsters the body's ability to recover from injuries and stress.

Cognitive Behavior

How you think and act is influenced by sleep quality. It affects:

  • Counterproductive Behaviour: Sleep deprivation can lead to impulsive choices and unhealthy habits.

  • Positive Habit Formation: Good sleep promotes discipline and supports healthy habit formation.

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Sleep plays a significant role in emotional regulation:

  • Motivation: Feeling well-rested increases motivation to exercise.

  • Decision-making: Sleep supports clear thinking and better decision-making related to exercise and overall health.

  • Injuries: Poor sleep increases the risk of injuries due to impaired focus and coordination.

  • Injury times: Adequate sleep speeds up the healing process.

It’s time we recognize sleep as the First Health Pillar; mental and physical health are interconnected, and sleep is a key factor. Not just for athletes.

Photography by: Talia M/

Something else that has developed over the last decade or so, is our knowledge that sleep could be linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as social isolation and addictive behaviors. You could say that sleep studies are still in their infancy when compared with other areas of science and medicine, but it's becoming increasingly clear that sleep plays a much bigger part in our overall physical health and performance than once thought.

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It is the natural human recovery process, and this should be your focus to reveal more consistent, sustainable levels of overall recovery. The benefits can be life-changing for everyone, from decision-making, mood, motivation, vitality, spirit, harmonizing key body hormones, stamina, strength, resilience, awareness, reflexes, anger management, and to just being more at peace with life.

What’s needed is a structured approach of interventions throughout the day to make sure you also get not only the right amount but also the right quality of sleep.

What exactly you can do will be the topic of my following articles, diving into sleep and recovery, sleep cycles and how to work with them, athlete’s hacks for better sleep, what to do when you are traveling, and finally an outlook on hot trends around the topic of optimization of sleep.