Athletes are reported to be at an increased risk of disrupted or impaired sleep. During routine training and out of competition periods, the sleep of elite athletes appears only slightly worse than matched controls; however, there are a range of scenarios which can further impair or restrict the sleep of athletes.
Amongst athletes and coaches, sleep is widely considered essential for optimal athletic performance, yet this supposition has not always been supported in well-controlled studies. While it is important to consider that the impaired sleep experienced by athletes is often accompanied by other features such as pre-competition anxiety (as discussed above), and is therefore not identical in nature to forced sleep deprivation in a laboratory setting, studies of sleep deprivation do provide a basis to study the effects of impaired sleep.
A recent review reported considerable variation in the reported effects of sleep deprivation on athletic performance. While the authors concluded that athletic performance is likely impaired, the extent and nature of this impairment was still unclear. This is partly due to potential differences in the duration of the sleep deprivation employed in various studies, with some studies employing as much as 64 hrs of sleep deprivation and others as little as 3 hours reduced sleep time.
The majority of studies have examined the effect of sleep deprivation of 24 hrs or greater, while far fewer studies have investigated the potentially subtler effects of partial sleep deprivation or sleep disruption. Importantly, this is more likely to be what is experienced by athletes during competition and routine training.
Multiple aspects of physical and cognitive performance were impaired by a single night of sleep deprivation and partial sleep deprivation. These effects were smaller following partial sleep deprivation, with handgrip strength also maintained following partial sleep deprivation. These findings are important for athletes who may experience even moderate sleep deprivation prior to competition as it is highly likely to impact their performance.