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How Does Sleep Affect Your Football Performance?

How Does Sleep Affect Your Football Performance?

Few things sound better than squeezing in an afternoon nap when life gets really high paced, or hitting the snooze button on our alarms and sleeping in for few more hours over weekends. Both sound like great ways to catch up on sleep, and both sound counter-productive, too. But what if both of these simple tasks could help improve your performance on the football pitch and in the gym?

Sleep, like nutrition and hydration, can have a massive impact on your physical performance. Not only could your performance suffer as a result of poor sleep quality, but you could also be putting yourself at risk of injury as a result of not getting enough shut-eye. Sleep Science has evolved to such an extent that most professional clubs either consult with,  or have a fulltime “Sleep Doctor” to assess and advise on how their players should be getting the best out our their sleep.

From personalized hotel mattresses, to field-side sleep pods, Sleep Science is making massive waves in pro sport. But how does this all apply to you as a footballer, and how can you apply the science and keep up with the pros?

What Really Happens When We Sleep

When we get into bed and prepare for sleep our bodies begin to move through two main cycles: NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement), and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. During NREM we generally experience three specific phases:

  1. We fall into a light sleep, our eyes are closed but it is easy to wake up
  2. We are still in a light sleep but your body begins to prepare for a deeper sleep (heart rate and body temperature begin to drop)
  3. You fall into a deep sleep and generally feel very disorientated if you are woken up

During deep sleep stages of NREM our bodies begin repairing our muscles, bones, tissues, etc. This is important for recovering from those hard training sessions (mentioned a little later in this post). As we continue to sleep and have been in the 3rd phase of NREM for around 90 minutes, we begin to enter the REM phase of our sleep. During this phase our brains are extremely active and mimic the same processes as when we are awake. As a result, we experience intense dreams during the REM phase.

Hormones Associated with Sleep

Now that we have a basic understanding of how we sleep, let’s take a brief look at the hormones associated with starting the process. Another key area of sleep hygiene is a hormone called Melatonin. Melatonin is produced within the brain and is responsible for the onset of sleep. Generally speaking, the brain secretes more/less melatonin in response to light stimulus – the darker our environment gets, the more melatonin is produced and the more tired we become.

The opposite happens when our environment becomes brighter. However, the levels of melatonin can also fluctuate through the influence of other external stimuli such as stress, travel, diet, etc. Interestingly, it is also thought that this bed time hormone can affect endurance performance – something that is vital to footballers. But how does this tie into the bigger picture – how does sleep itself affect my overall performance on the pitch?

Lack of Sleep and Impact on Performance

Now that we know what happens during sleep, how can not getting enough of it impair our performance? A study in 2015 found that a lack of sleep can severely affect your brains ability to process information and delay your decision-making. This means that your reaction time may be slower, which may mean the difference between reacting effectively and controlling that short bullet pass, or saving that penalty on Derby Day.

Another study claimed that after 17-19 hours of no sleep, your decision-making ability and cognitive functioning would be similar to your ability had you consumed a few pints and were legally not allowed to drive a car. The key – less sleep means slower reasoning, slower response time, slower decision-making and poorer performance. But what else can it do to us? 

Risk of Injury and Illness

Apart from affecting your performance, chronic poor sleep quality, or a lack of sleep all together, can also increase your risk of injury/illness. A scientific study conducted in 2016 found that young athletes who slept, on average, less than 8 hours per night increased their risk of injury by 1.7 times when compared to those athletes who slept more than 8 hours per night. As the athletes got older, each additional year increased their risk of injury by 1.4. This showed that getting your solid 8 hours of sleep per night was vital to contributing to keeping you on the pitch and doing what you do best. 

Sleep and Session Recovery

Poor sleep has shown to decrease our mental ability to perform at our best on the pitch, as well as increase our risk of injury. So how does it affect our ability to physically recover from tough training sessions and matches and prepare for those mentally gruelling double sessions? A study conducted in 2018 showed that extending your sleep beyond 8 hours (sleeping slightly longer each night, or napping up to 2 hours post-training) can enhance physical performance, reduce stress levels and reduce perceived fatigue associated with training. Another researcher stated that simply taking a 15-20 minute power nap had the power to restore alertness, enhance physical and cognitive performance and reduce stress. This effect was boosted when ingesting caffeine immediately before taking the nap. This strategy might also come in handy when you find it difficult to sum up the energy to tackle an afternoon session.

Training times and sleep

Have you ever felt better when you train in the morning, but feel tired and lethargic after training in the afternoon/evening? You might be a “morning-type chronotype”. Morning-type chronotypes experience poorer sleep quality when performing HIIT training in the evening when compared to evening-type chronotypes. No change in sleep quality was experienced in either group when the HIIT sessions were conducted in the morning. Therefore it is important to know which chronotype you belong to and plan your additional training sessions at the right time.

Night-time games have been shown to radically impair our ability to get a good night’s rest when compared to day-time games. In a study conducted on elite football players, a decrease in sleep duration of up to 3 hours was reported following night-time games. While the scheduling of fixtures may be out of our control, it is important to plan ahead and put the correct measures in place to counteract the negative effects associated with night-time fixtures.

Bad Influences on Good Sleep Hygiene

We know that poor sleep quality can have a majorly negative effect on our on-field performance. But what kind of external factors can have a negative effect on our sleep quality? Understanding what helps us sleep peacefully, or prevents us from getting the some quality rest, can help us prevent the negative side-effects and improve on our recovery.

  • Electronic Devices
Studies have shown that the using self-luminating electronic devices prior to sleeping can suppress the level of melatonin being produced in your body by up to 22% and thereby delay sleep and even reduce the amount of sleep you need
  • Long-haul travel to and from competitions
Long hours of travel impair your ability to sleep properly. Interestingly, traveling eastward has the greatest negative effect on sleep quality following a long-haul flight
  • Anxiety
Anxiety can have a detrimental effect on your quality of the sleep. Match nerves can play on your ability to fall asleep and get those much needed 8 hours of shut eye.
  • Environment

A hot, bright environment can also negatively affect your ability to sleep. Maintaining a sleep-supporting environment is key.

Ways to improve on your sleeping habits

Now that we’ve established the bad influencers, how do we ensure we get a good nights rest?

  • Make sure there are no disruptive noises that will prevent you from falling asleep or may wake you up
  • If you have access to central heating/cooling, ensure your room remains at a constant 18 degrees Celsius (64-65 degrees Fahrenheit) 
  • Establish a consistent sleep routine, i.e. get into bed at a specific time each night, ensure you are relaxed and wake up at a consistent time to get your 8 hours of rest.
  • Avoid ingesting any caffeine or food before you head to bed (except for power naps)
  • Don’t use your electronic devices for up to 30 minutes prior to sleeping
  • If you need a power nap to recharge, avoid doing so after midday
  • Ensure your room is completely dark (i.e. blackout curtains) and remove any light-generating items.

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References:

Fullagar, H.H., Skorski, S., Duffield, R., Hammes, D., Coutts, A.J., Meyer, T. Sleep and athletic performance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitive responses to exercise. Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(5): 161-186, 2015.

Fullagar, H.H., Skorski, S., Duffield, R., Julian, R., Bartlett, J., Meyer, T. Impaired sleep and recovery after night matches in elite football players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(14): 1333-1339, 2016.

Vitale, J.A., Bonatom M., Galasso, L., La Torre, A., Merati, G., Montaruli, A., Roveda, E., Carandente, F. Sleep quality and high intensity interval training at two different times of day: A crossover study on the influence of the chronotype in male collegiate soccer players. Chronobiology International, 34(2): 1525-6073, 2016.

Milewski, M.D., Skaggs, D.L., Bishop, G.A., Pace, J.L., Ibrahim, D.A., Wren, T.A., Barzdukas, A. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, 34(2): 129-133, 2014.

Williamson, A.M., Freyer, A.M. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Journal of Occupational and Environment Medicine, 57: 649-655, 2000.

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