"Practice makes perfect." "If at first you don't succeed, try try again." We all hear these things over and over as children. They are like old proverbs - wisdom from the learning gods, passed down through generations.
So much focus is on the effort and the taking in of stimulus - doing a thing over and over again, or reading and rereading to get information into our brains.
We need to come up with a good english proverb to reflect the next part. The part where you rest and stop overloading your brain so that it can actually do the learning, retain the skill, consolidate all of that input into usable memories and refined neuropathways. Something like - "The one who sleeps the hardest perfects thy practice the most."
Let me explain.
While we are awake all day, we are taking in lots of stimulus. While we are asleep at night, our body and brain integrate all of that stimulus.
It's like taking piles of notes and then organizing them and deciding what is important, what is redundant, throwing out the useless stuff, and getting meaning and understanding out of the information that we keep.
Our brains are not just passive information receiving buckets. We don't keep everything around. We have defragmentation processes that go on in our heads every night.
(For those of you who are too young to remember what defragging a computer is, we used to have to manually defragment hard drives to keep our computers happy: "Defragmentation, also known as “defrag” or “defragging”, is the process of reorganizing the data stored on the hard drive so that related pieces of data are put back together, all lined up in a continuous fashion.")
As scientists have continued to explore the purpose of sleeping, as well as the fields of motor learning and cognition, they have discovered that our brains do a wonderful job of reorganizing data while we are peacefully unconscious. But we can't just be unconscious, our brains have to be cycling through quality sleep stages - stage 2 non-REM sleep, stage 3 deep, slow wave sleep, and REM (dreaming) sleep. These stages involve complicated processes of electrical waves flowing across brain regions, rhythmically connecting far reaching parts of your brain so that it can connect ideas, movement, sensory input, and emotion into usable programming that you can store and access in the future.
The best part of all of this activity - is that it makes you better than you were before you went to sleep.
A lot of research has been published on this topic over the last 2 decades. One study out of Berkley looked at the effect of sleep on speed and accuracy of physical skills (called motor skill performance in the study). They had 62 adults learn a sequence of five key tapping. Then they tested them to see how fast and accurate they could be at repeating the sequences in 30 second intervals. The people were then retested after either 12 hours of being awake, or 12 hours later but they got to sleep in that 12 hours (one group learned at 10am the other at 10pm).
The people who were trained in the morning and retested later that day, without sleeping, showed no significant improvement. The people who were trained, slept, and retested in the morning averaged 20% improvement in speed and 39% improvement in accuracy (2).
Studies have also looked at sleeping patterns to assess the effect of poor quality sleep on motor learning. They have found that increased sleep disruptions, termed WASO (waking after sleep onset), has dramatic negative effects on skill acquisition in adults (3).
When looking at when, during the night, most of the skill benefits happen, some evidence suggests that sleep later in the night - the last 2 hours of an 8 hour night of sleep - has the most impact (2). There is a special type of electrical activity called 'sleep spindles' that appear to be most active during those last hours of sleep. Sleep spindles have been linked to changes in your brain and making new neural connections (2).
Take extra note of that if you're someone who forces themselves to get up early to 'rise and grind' or to get your workouts in. If you're cutting your sleep short, you might be missing out on the juicy brain spindles and learning benefits towards the end of your sleep.
That being said, other research has looked at napping and sleep that happens outside of the 'normal' circadian rhythm and has found that there are still added learning benefits to sleep - regardless of duration and timing (4).
So what does all of this have to do with you?
Well, you may have noticed that the world is changing fast. To be successful and to perform well requires that we are constantly learning and 'upskilling.' Not only do we need to be constantly learning and expanding our skills - most of us want to. And this want tends to leak out into our personal lives too.
Most people who are into fitness have goals. We want to learn how to be faster, stronger, more mobile, and to see what our bodies are capable of. Unlike older generations who have tended to ease off the throttle on their physical development once they are adults and are working on their careers and families, adults now want to continue to grow - in every domain.
This continued learning and growth across our life span requires more effort and attention as we age. It also requires more sleep.
Now we're not saying don't practice. Definitely practice. Practice your ass off. Wishing to be good at something does not make you better - even with all of the sleep in the world. What we are saying is that if you're busting your butt trying to learn something, you need to sleep hard too, since that is when your brain makes sense of it all.
If you need help getting your sleep right, check out our top 50 Sleephacks and see which small changes can have the biggest impacts for you. Our natural sleep supplements can also be a great way to get better sleep and recovery.
*** The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They are the opinions of the expert and do not necessarily represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
- Walker, Matthew P et al. “Sleep and the time course of motor skill learning.” Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.) vol. 10,4 (2003): 275-84. doi:10.1101/lm.58503
- Walker, Matthew P et al. “Practice with sleep makes perfect: sleep-dependent motor skill learning.” Neuron vol. 35,1 (2002): 205-11. doi:10.1016/s0896-6273(02)00746-8
- Appleman, Erica R et al. “Sleep quality influences subsequent motor skill acquisition.” Behavioral neuroscience vol. 130,3 (2016): 290-7. doi:10.1037/bne0000131
- Tucker, Matthew A et al. “The Relative Impact of Sleep and Circadian Drive on Motor Skill Acquisition and Memory Consolidation.” Sleep vol. 40,4 (2017): zsx036. doi:10.1093/sleep/zsx036
- Jones, Bethany J, and Rebecca M C Spencer. “Role of Napping for Learning across the Lifespan.” Current sleep medicine reports vol. 6,4 (2020): 290-297. doi:10.1007/s40675-020-00193-9