The Olympics -- Is Sleep The Answer For A Gold Medal?

Its five interlocking rings are symbolic of the continents of the world united. It is the Olympics, a quadrennial worldwide celebration of performance from the best athletes in the world. During an intense fortnight of competition, there is pageantry, exhibitions of national pride and international friendship, presentation of medals to victors and anguish for the defeated. In less than two weeks, the summer Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro; the first time it has been staged in South America. Amid the controversy over the Zika virus, poorly constructed infrastructure and polluted water, athletes will no doubt overcome these obstacles and produce thrilling victories and world records. But, what are the factors that determine the difference between victory and defeat?

There is no doubt that innate physical ability and body stature are primary factors in determining athletic performance. Combined with excellent coaching, training facilities, dedicated work ethic, and proper diet world class athletes emerge. However, until recently there has been scant attention paid to the importance of sleep. Recent information indicate that athletes sleep less well than non-athletes, and that an increased rate of obstructive sleep apnea is observed in athletes with a high BMI and increased neck size. Furthermore, travel across time zones with resultant jet lag may also lead to problems with getting adequate sleep. Are these deficiencies in sleep important in affecting athletic performance?

Insufficient sleep impairs reaction time, judgment and coordination, all of which could impact physical functioning. Studies in athletes demonstrate that lack of sleep adversely affects their performance and more sleep improves it. Serving accuracy in tennis players was worse after a night of restricting sleep to five hours. Distance running on a treadmill was less after a night of total sleep restriction. Conversely, sleep extension increased tennis serving accuracy. In a group of college basketball players, sleep extension improved free throw accuracy, 3-point field goal percentage and sprint times. Finally, a 30-minute nap decreased sprint times after a night of sleep restriction.

Are the demonstrated adverse consequences of insufficient sleep important in determining athletic outcomes? Consider that in a typical college basketball game, approximately 22 free throws are taken. An absolute increase of 10 percent in free throw accuracy would result in 2.2 more points which in many games is the difference between winning and losing. Sprints in the Olympics are decided by hundredths of seconds. Again, a change in performance from sleep restriction or extension by a very small amount may result in a gold medal or also ran status. Data show that professional football teams from the west coast have a competitive advantage for evening games. As a consequence, some professional sports teams now employ sleep experts as consultants. Furthermore, in addition to its impact on athletic performance, insufficient sleep can increase risk of injury.

Sleep deficiency affects both athletes and the general public alike. It can be the difference between victory and defeat as well as between a safe drive home and a motor vehicle accident. The bottom line for athletes is "Sleep for Better Performance", and for the general public "Sleep for Optimum Health".