Sleep for Performance & Health: More Is Better

Last Wednesday, Sleep and Weight Loss: Sleep More to Lose More was published, garnering some interesting responses and sparking conversations beyond sleep’s contribution to weight loss. And of course, as an athlete and someone seeking to achieve high-performance in every area of my life, I’m not just bothered about sleep’s contribution to weight loss; I’m also passionate about sleep’s incredible contribution to high-performance – on a consistent, regular basis.

As someone who regularly sleeps between 8-10 hours each night with a few 12 hour hibernations every now and again and some unfortunate 6 or 7 hour nights (such as when the neighbour decides to host a party with loud music until 2.30 in the morning…), you may imagine I’m as good a person as any to discuss the importance of sleep and performance. Or you may think I’m the worst person to discuss this because, ‘what do you know about sleepless nights, Abs’ and ‘how about you share information on how I can perform better with less sleep? Because there’s no way I could ever feasibly consistently achieve an 8+ hour nights’ sleep.

Well, I have experienced sleepless nights (they’re the worst which is why I am such a massive sleep-research junkie) and sorry, I don’t believe you can perform better with less sleep so I can’t help you there. So if you do want to find out how to perform better with less sleep, this is not the blog for you.

The science is in. More sleep (to a point) is often better. Just like gravity will always bring you back down to earth, the research shows that a good night’s sleep will lead to higher-functioning, higher-performing behaviours.

And this spans age and performance areas – whether you’re three, thirty-three or 103-years old; whether you work in sports, an office or in a classroom; and whether you believe in the importance of a good night’s sleep or not.

Can you tell I’m passionate about the subject?

And to add weight to my cries, I’ve brought in the experts to explain, using scientific study and research, why more sleep contributes to more success – in memory, in performance, in relationships, in your ability to rationalise, create and innovate, learn… everything! But first, my own mini research results:

Social Media Research

Out of a small voting population of 150 Instagrammers, 42% said they slept 8+ hours on average. I applaud that!

Those who reported to sleep more than 8-hours include: British Champions, Olympians and Paralympians from across the USA, Britain, Australia, and Europe, top nutrition coaches (no wonder, considering the research in my previous post), and top business managers (including mothers of toddlers!).

Previous Post: Sleep and Weight Loss

That’s not to say that sleeping less automatically denotes poor-performance. Radio hosts, church and business leaders, teachers, coaches and Olympians are also included amongst the lists of those who reported they get less than 8 hours’ of sleep at night. But, as I’m sure they’ve heard asked before and I’m about to ask again, ‘how much more could you achieve with an extra hour or two of sleep each night?

And maybe you’re amongst that list above and don’t believe you can enhance your performance through more and better-quality sleep? Well, I take back what I said above: this blog is for you unbelievers! Please keep reading and let me know at the end whether you’ve been persuaded to take up the challenge to sleep more!

Lying down on the job. (Photo by Iain McGuinness/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Defining High Performance

Improved sleep time and quality leads to improved performance, she says. But what do I even mean by that, why is this important for you and… is it even important?

To answer this, let me first define high performance in terms of what this means to me. ‘High‘ performance is simply doing something with excellence – not just good, but great – and that’s relative to who you are and what goals you have set. ‘Performance‘ is not necessarily putting on a show, but simply doing what you want to do in life to the best of your ability (that’s the ‘high’ part of the high-performance equation).

So, if doing something – work, life, relationships – to the best of your ability is something you strive for in life, surely you don’t want this to be limited by a lack of high-quality sleep?

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (Neuroscientist)

What I learned from neuroscientist and researcher, Matthew Walker from his book, Why We Sleep about sleep’s contribution to successful growth, happiness and emotional regulation for toddlers, children, teens, young and old adults.

Myth: Older adults, seniors and the elderly don’t need as much sleep as those in their twenties or thirties.

Matthew says science tells us they do. ‘Older adults appear to need just as much sleep as they do in midlife, but are simply less able to generate that (still necessary) sleep’.

‘Elderly individuals fail to connect their deterioration in health with their deterioration in sleep, despite causal links between the two having been known to scientists for many decades.’

‘The lower an older individual’s sleep efficiency score, the higher their mortality risk, the worse their physical health, the more likely they are to suffer from depression, the less energy they report, the lower their cognitive function, typified by forgetfulness.’

Did you get all of that? Physical, mental, emotional health all suffering as a result of poor-quality, reduced sleep. But there is help coming. Keep reading…

The term ‘sleep efficiency’ is something I learned in this book and, explained simply, it’s the percentage of time you are actually asleep whilst in bed. Last night, I went to bed at around 2315 and got up at 9am, but I had a fractured night’s sleep, getting up once to use the bathroom and a random-wake up for a brief moment at 6am. I fell asleep pretty much as soon as my head hit the pillow, but let’s call it 10 minutes to sleep and I woke up about 15 minutes before I eventually got up out of bed, so I was awake for approximately 35 minutes of my 9 hours and 45-minutes bedtime at a sleep efficiency rate of 94%. I don’t track my sleep using an app so I may have been unconsciously awake at other times during the night too. And although I woke up without an alarm, I didn’t feel as refreshed as a 94% sleep efficiency rate over 9+ hours might suggest, so I can tell that I probably had some unknown wakeful moments and I am perhaps still repaying a sleep debt (more on that later). (I also know I struggle with low moods when the weather is dark and moody, so that probably had something to do with the un-refreshed feeling!)

Myth: Teens stay up so late because they are up all night on their video-games.

Yes, but no! Our circadian rhythm changes through different phases of our lives, so it would help for us to practice compassion, kindness and understanding towards each other as we go through these phases.

Teens have a circadian rhythm that is pushed forward significantly from their childhood rhythm – ‘During puberty, the timing of the suprachiasmatic nucleaus is shifted progressively forward…so far forward, in fact, it passes even the timing of their adult parents.’ This means it is nature that causes them to consider 1 or 2 am a ‘normal’ time to sleep… and past midday as a good time to wake-up!

‘Asking a teenager to wake up at seven the next morning and function with intellect, grace, and good mood is the equivalent to asking you, their parent, to do the same at four or five a.m. [Your] teenager’s sleep patterns [do not] reflect a conscious choice [but] a biological edict’.

‘As parents, we are often too focused on what sleep is taking away from our teenagers, without stopping to think about what it may be adding.’

So I hope that dispelling this myth will lead to a happier, more patient relationship between parent and child. (I will also pass this on to my mother to save my twenty-year old sister from daily earache about her lazy sleeping habits!)

Myth: Diet, exercise and medication are all we need to restore and maintain good holistic health.

Ultimately, a lack of sleep contributes to a variety of ailments, illnesses and diseases. Sleep problems, particularly in the elderly such as needing to wake up in the middle of the night for a bathroom break due to a weak bladder lead to falls that lead to broken bones and then other complications. Sleep affects us differently across our life span, but a full night’s sleep always contributes to improved brain function, including brain development from the womb to adulthood. Sleep deficiencies at any point in time during this brain growth and development period can lead to ‘abnormalities’ and Walker cites the correlation of sleep deficiency with autism, ADHD and schizophrenia to name just three potential causal associations. ‘REM sleep is vital for promoting brain maturation’.

If you therefore get 6 hours of sleep rather than 8 hours, you’ve missed an entire REM cycle. If you do this seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, you’ve missed out on 365 additional REM cycles. How many opportunities for brain development have we all (myself included) missed in our lifetime? We can’t change the past, but we can certainly improve our future-selves’ well-being!

Ultimately, Walker provides a significant amount of evidence to show we definitely do not give sleep the credit it is due as, if not a panacea, at least a great restorer and upholder of physical health and mental-emotional wellness. Buy his book to learn more.

Thrive by Arianna Huffington (Huff Post)

One major fact I learned from media giant, Arianna Huffington about sleep’s contribution to peak performance in sports in her book, Thrive (on offer for £2.99 at time of writing):

‘You can get safe, legal HGH [human growth hormone] just by shutting off the lights’

ESPN’s Peter Keating

‘Over ten years ago, Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, was looking into the impact of sleep on the brain.

Over three seasons, Mah had eleven Stanford basketballl players keep a normal schedule for a few weeks and then, for five to seven weeks, had them take naps, eat carefully, and try to get ten hours of sleep a night.

All eleven players saw improvements in their performance. Three-point shooting went up 9.2 per cent. Free throws were up 9 percent.

Not only did on-court performance improve, but players said their moods were lifted and that they generally felt less fatigued.’

‘What these findings suggest is that these athletes were operating at a sub-optimal level,’ Mah said. ‘They’d accumulated a sleep debt…It’s not that they couldn’t function – they were doing fine – but that they might not have been at their full potential.’

Cheri Mah (Stanford Researcher)

Oh my gosh!

Never do I ever want to not achieve my full potential or just be doing ‘fine’. How about you?

My desire to fulfil my potential and do better than ‘fine’ fuels so much of what I do and who I am.

I guess that’s why I returned to the sport in 2018 after two years’ retirement – unfinished business.

I guess that’s why I study science surrounding performance, including the relationship between sleep and high performance.

I guess that’s why (even though I do get the recommended 8 hours’ of sleep each night) I am continually seeking out ways to get even more to replenish whatever sleep debt I may have and get the most out of my athletics’ career.

Because what does a 9% performance gain mean for you?

Related Blog: Unfinished Business – Why Did You Un-Retire?

9% means leaping from 6.86m (current PB) to 7.48m (my maths could be completely off here, so I apologise if so). At this point, I’d be happy with a more realistic 1-2% performance gain. And even if I worked in performance-averages rather than based on an outlier – let’s say my average performances from 2019 were around the 6.60m mark, to improve my average mark by 1-2% (up to 6.72m) simply by sleeping more would still be a significant gain.

To achieve more the science is telling me to sleep more. Doesn’t that sound appealing to you?

Examples from a European Champion & British Medallist – Sleep & Sport Performance

What I learned from high-performers in sport on sleep’s contribution to their success.

Sleep or Workout? Choose Sleep.

‘Last year (2019), working full time, I used to prioritise sleep over my morning run when really busy. Would always get at least my 8 hours as priority. I put a lot of work into my sleep routine. Notice a world of difference when I’m regular with it.’ – Jamie Webb (800m)

How did this preference for sleep over training affect Jamie’s performances? Well, last year he won the silver medal at the European Indoor Athletics Championships! And if sleep really does contribute to a mood-lift (re Cheri Mah’s research), then the sleep more to smile more is a a 100% organic, positive performance-enhancing cycle we should all be more keen to take hold of. Like Jamie says – ‘A happy athlete is a fast athlete.’

Jamie Webb’s Silver Medal Performance at European Indoor Championships, 2019

Power Naps

Shanara Hibbert on both the rejuvenating effects of and the dangers of napping or sleeping (when you’re interrupted mid-sleep cycle):

‘I try to stick to the 26-minute NASA nap. I had an ‘indefinite’ nap a few weeks ago and was woken up 40 minutes later by my boyfriend for dinner. Felt awful because I think I was mid-dream. But after 26 minutes, I’m usually good, even if I just rest and don’t sleep properly.’

Another problem for high-performers with a full schedule is the intrusive nature of an ‘indefinite’ or what I refer to as a 90-minute nap ‘just because it feels like then the whole day has gone by’ (Shanara). We are not all able to schedule a 90-minute nap; many won’t have the time to nap at all, which is why making your nighttime and sleep routine sacred is of utmost importance to high-performance in work and life.

Naps For Memory Retention

However, Matthew Walker’s research again highlights the benefits not just of a good night’s sleep, but equally the power of napping, particularly for students! ‘Following a night of sleep you regain access to memories that you could not retrieve before sleep.’ So that information you had forgotten in class may suddenly return to mind upon waking!

Research shows that the memory retention benefit of a good night’s sleep (or 26-90 minute NREM power nap) is between 20-40% compared to staying awake for the same period.

‘The more deep NREM sleep, the more information an individual remembered the next day…. Even daytime naps as short as twenty minutes can offer a memory consolidation advantage, so long as they contain enough NREM sleep.’ How does this happen? The memories move from the hippocampus at the back of your brain to the neocortex at the front for long-term storage of new memories ‘where they can now live safely, perhaps in perpetuity’.

And yes, I know that you now may have more questions than answers: What’s NREM sleep? And how do I get that? Well, to keep it simple – NREM sleep occurs earlier in your sleep cycle so it is better to go to bed and wake up early than it is to stay up all night studying or working and then sleep later because you may miss your NREM sleep. But for more detail, pick up Why We Sleep!

How To Nap

Yet whilst many people don’t have time for a nap (despite the amazing benefits!) others say they can’t nap even if they tried.

To my Insta question, ‘Do you nap?’, one respondent stated: ‘If only! Never a day in my life, even with babies I couldn’t.’ What stopped you?, I asked. ‘My head!’ she said.

On reflection, when I’ve had trouble napping (besides telling everyone in the house to be quiet and ensuring the external environment is set up for a good nap – cool, dark room, etc.) it’s been for this same reason – my head. So, if you have the time and want to trial napping, here’s my top tip: [1] meditate for 5-minutes – guided or otherwise; [2] journal for 5 minutes (get your nagging thoughts out of your head) and then put your head to the pillow. Let me know how that goes…

One of my clients tells me she naps ‘almost daily for an hour’ and ‘can’t function without them’. Her secret is walking, mindful eating and meditating. Because she is already in a slow, restful state throughout her day, she’s able to ‘literally put my head on a pillow and doze off’. I’m not quite there yet, but I love the knowledge that it’s possible! How about you?

When To Nap

As much as I’m a huge nap and sleep proponent, a word of caution: TIMING IS EVERYTHING! We’ve already brushed past the 26 vs 90-minute nap. Here’s another tip: the best time to take a nap is before 3pm. Any naps beyond this time may lighten your sleep pressure, making it difficult for you to fall asleep at your usual time (unless you are one of the blessed few whose nighttime sleep is seemingly unaffected by late-afternoon/evening naps). Parents know this. That’s why they do everything in their power to keep their babies and toddlers awake during long car journeys. If they sleep now, they’ll never get to sleep at night! So remember this tip for yourself, too.

My Personal Lessons & Tips with Sleep & High-Performance

What I learned from my own personal experimentation with sleep on its contribution to my performance in sport, business and relationships.

This is the longest blog ever and I’m tired. Maybe I’ll share another blog on my contributions later…

#SleepOverEverything

Additional Resources

Shanara suggests The Art of Sleeping by Rob Hobson via BorrowBox – an app offering free audiobooks and eBooks if you have a library card.

She also suggests The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond via BorrowBox.

Jamie Webb suggests ‘A Q&A with Elite Sleep Coach, Nick Littlehales’ on our 90-minute sleep cycles and his collection of books on sleep and naps.

Tips for Sleeping Better

  • Read before bed as part of a wind-down routine
  • Afternoon or evening baths
  • Stop drinking before 9pm (to avoid fractured sleep caused by bathroom breaks)
  • Sleep in silk or satin

And, remember Jamie’s tip: if it’s a choice between more work or sleep, don’t be Sleepy Tom. Choose sleep!

Did you enjoy this blog? Congrats for getting to the end! It’s a long one. Since you’ve made it this far, why not join the #PlusThirtySleepChallenge ? Tweet about it to spread this message of improved health, wellness and performance!

Plus Thirty Sleep Challenge

I’ve taken up the #PlusThirtySleepChallenge to sleep an extra 30 minutes each night (that’s an extra 3.5 hours per week) for the next 30 days! Will you join me?


*As part of the Amazon Affiliates Program, I will receive a small fee from products purchased via the links. If you do buy any of these products, I know it will bless you as it has done me because I only recommend products I believe in! 

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