Without proper rest, you might not be fulfilling your potential in competition – Ethan Lowry explains the effects of a poor sleep pattern
Sleep is a biological phenomenon. We have studied it for decades and while we understand a great deal about it and its effects on the human body, there is an even greater part of it that eludes us. Most of us enjoy going to bed, feeling rested and refreshed the following day, but rarely do we think about what our bodies do during this process.
We enter an altered state of consciousness, in which nearly all of our voluntary muscles are relaxed and we are significantly less aware of outside stimuli such as noises and smells. We are in an anabolic state as our bodies attempt to build and repair themselves after the stresses of daily living. Our bodies also use this as an opportunity to ensure it remains in a state of homeostasis. Put simply, this is an attempt to ensure every physiological aspect of the body is performing at an optimally balanced level. Not only is sleep important for us physically but our mental health is equally reliant on it.
Though our muscles are relaxed during sleep, our brain is definitely not. To understand brain activity, we have to look and the various stages of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-REM, which is then broken into three further stages.
As we sleep, we progress through each of these stages gradually, getting into a deeper sleep until REM. During this stage, we dream, our eyes blink rapidly, neurons within our brains fire up and brain activity runs wild.
The optimum level of sleep we require varies greatly from one person to another. The number of hours we actually sleep, whether it exceeds this optimum level or falls short of it, can have a notable effect on the physical and mental aspects of daily living. Athletes – including clay shooters – will typically require more sleep than the general public due to the increased stress on their bodies from their chosen sports.
While clay shooting may not have the same physical stresses as the likes of football or rugby, the mental stresses are significant. Next time you come home from shooting, think how mentally drained you are.
You may not have physically moved much throughout the day but your brain has been working tirelessly to calculate the speed of clays, their trajectory, their distance, listening for the trap, the anticipation. Doing this over and over, especially with the added pressure of a competition shoot, can be physically exhausting even though it shouldn’t be. Just as your muscles need to recover after significant physical exertion, your brain also needs to recover from the mental stresses of your chosen activity.
Factors that can influence your quality of sleep
• Artificial lights: especially, phones, laptops and TV
• Eating big meals just before bed
• Uncomfortable mattresses
• Caffeine from coffee and soft drinks
• Excessive drinking of alcohol
• Exercising too late before bed
All these factors can influence your sleep quality to some degree but everyone is different. Think about how long you slept last night, how you felt when you woke up. Did you feel refreshed and energised? Think about what was different about your quality of sleep. Eventually you will find what works best for you.
In terms of performance, sleep can have a tremendous effect on alertness – an obvious and important skill of any shooter. The more alert you are, the quicker you will be able to calculate the actions of each stage of the shooting process. Some people try to encourage this alertness through the consumption of team or coffee. In some instances, this can be beneficial but if we consume caffeine to account for the fact we haven’t had enough sleep, then the effects can be detrimental rather than beneficial.
Multiple studies, including those by Mah et al. (2011), found that by taking subjects who felt their alertness was affected by sleep deprivation and asking them to simply extend their sleep duration over a period of just six days, they saw substantial improvements in their alertness. It was also found that during competition periods, if athletes set aside a time for napping or simply relaxation a significant majority saw improvements in their performance. Albeit catching a quick 20-minute nap at your local clay shoot may be difficult – unless you sleep with ear protectors on – you may find that simply returning to a less noisy section can be of some benefit.
Some obvious effects of sleep deprivation is tiredness and fatigue: you become sluggish in your movements, you don’t quite have the same muscular endurance as usual and your strength will probably be affected. In shooting terms, you may find that you’re slower to raise your gun, you may find that your shoulders, arms and neck feel weaker or that they are straining more to perform their usual functions.
All of these points may only have small impact on each aspect of your shooting but accumulatively they can have a notable effect on shooting performance. So how can we avoid these effects of sleep deprivation? An easy answer would be to simply sleep more. Sometimes this is all that is required but more often it isn’t that simple. Just because you have had six hours of sleep does not mean that you have had six hours of good and, therefore, beneficial sleep.