Can You Bank on Sleep to Improve Performance?
Published at 5 Jun 2019

In recent years, scientists have established that sleep health play a vital role in sport and exercise performance.


Get your sleep health right and performance is likely to be enhanced.

However, broken or insufficient sleep is not good for performance.

In terms of physiological recovery, sleep is vital - not least because a number of hormonal responses take place in the lead up to and during sleep. One important hormone relating to athletic recovery is growth hormone. Growth hormone is necessary for body restoration, and plays an important role in muscle growth and repair. Muscle growth, repair, and bone building are vital for athletic recovery following strenuous training and competition; it has been reported that 95% of the daily production of growth hormone is released from the pituitary gland in the endocrine system during non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM – ie deep sleep). Therefore NREM sleep is considered the time in which the body actively repairs and restores itself.

Given the above, it follows that a sleep shortage is likely to be counterproductive for athletic performance, and the research does indeed bear this out. Sleep deprivation is associated with higher rating of perceived effort (RPE) values, potentially leading to reduced performance, particularly in endurance events. In short, when you’re sleep deprived, you will feel like you’re working harder to sustain a given workload compared to when sleep amounts have been adequate.


Research also suggests that sleep deprivation leads to a higher rate of injury, reduces muscle glycogen stores and alters recovery after muscle damage induced by exercise. Acute sleep deprivation and chronic sleep restriction also induce alterations in glucose metabolism, with increases in insulin resistance and decreased insulin sensitivity. These changes in glucose and insulin metabolism means it becomes harder to regulate and optimise energy levels – both at rest and during exercise.

If sleep deprivation harms sport performance, a question that arises is whether extra sleep (above and beyond the normal sleep length) can provide additional performance benefits? This is a topic where relatively little research has been carried out. However, in the past four years or so, some intriguing findings have emerged.

In a pioneering 2015 study, French scientists investigated the effects of six nights of sleep extension on sustained attention and sleep-deprivation pressure before and during a period of total sleep deprivation. What they wanted to discover was whether ‘banking’ extra sleep hours could offset the performance decrements produced by subsequent sleep deprivation.

The results of tests carried out on the subjects the day after total sleep deprivation showed that compared to habitual sleep, when they had ‘banked’ the extra sleep for six nights, their psychomotor vigilance task performance was significantly improved after sleep deprivation (fewer lapses and faster speeds during the tasks). Interestingly, these benefits were still apparent the next day, after a night of ten hours of recovery sleep.

Studies on sleep banking in athletes before total sleep deprivation are all very well. But how relevant are they? How many sportsmen and women get no sleep at all the day before an event? Well, brand new research suggests that sleep banking could be performance enhancing, even in normal circumstances where athletes aren’t sleep deprived before an event. In a study by US scientists on 50 military athletes, researchers investigated the effects of sleep banking (four nights averaging an extra 80 minutes of sleep per night) on subsequent performance in a range of mental and physical tests.

What does this mean for athletes?

Although the research in this area is limited, the evidence to date is that sleep banking – ie a few nights of extra sleep hours – in the run up to a race or important event could be beneficial, even if you don’t consider yourself sleep deprived! These findings should also help to reassure athletes that a poor night’s sleep before an event is unlikely to dent performance – providing they’ve had ample sleep in the run up to that event. In terms of practical tips then:

  • *When preparing for an event, ensure your schedule in the week prior is quiet. Plan ahead and try if possible to keep this period free of late social evenings, deadlines, travel away etc.
  • *Allow 4-6 nights of longer sleep during that week by retiring to bed 90 minutes earlier than normal. This may mean moving your evening meal to a slightly earlier time. You may also wish to avoid caffeinated beverages after mid-afternoon.
  • *Stick to exactly the same bedtime routine as you normally do; this is important as your mental bedtime cues play an important role in producing feelings of sleepiness.
  • *Relax in the knowledge that you needn’t worry if you don’t sleep well the night before that important event. Your accumulated sleep surplus will easily see you through!





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