Professional athletes always seem to be touting their new and often expensive methods to increase performance and extend their prime. If you’re someone who is looking to improve your own performance, these tips have likely sparked your interest. However, more and more research is pointing to the idea that the best method to increase performance is actually much simpler: better sleep.
Though it may seem easy enough, numerous factors can hinder a person’s ability to get a good night’s rest. That’s why we put together some tips you can use to improve your performance through rest along with the science behind how sleep can boost athletic performance.
How Sleep Helps the Body Repair Itself
No matter how much time you spend lifting weights or counting carbs, you won’t see much in terms of results without proper rest. This is because while exercise tears down muscle, sleep rebuilds it1. This process is especially vital for athletes trying to build muscle mass.
There are four sleep stages in a sleep cycle, and we typically go through multiple cycles each night. However, when the body isn’t permitted to properly cycle through, muscle repair and hormone production can be cut short, meaning all those hours at practice or in the gym could potentially be wasted.
Muscle repair occurs in a process called protein synthesis2, which relies on a combination of diet, exercise, and sleep to build muscle. When athletes focus on protein and exercise but neglect their rest, they sabotage their own efforts. They will likely experience the wrong types of gains, as their calories are being converted to fat rather than being used to build and restore muscle.
Imperative to protein synthesis is steady hormone production, which balances a variety of functions performed by the endocrine system. Studies show that the human growth hormone (HGH) is stimulated by sleep3, among other things, so it’s vital to get those 7 to 9 hours.
How Does Sleep Improve Athletic Performance?
While rest is essential for repairing and preparing the body for exercise, it plays just as large a role in maximizing an athlete’s potential4. Affecting both mental and physical elements of competition and performance, proper rest has the power to significantly damage or improve an athlete’s chances at success.
According to The Science of Sleep5 by Fatigue Science, athletes with insufficient sleep may still be able to compete, but their perception of exertion and endurance will be distorted. These athletes will tire more quickly, and their time operating at full capacity will be significantly shorter compared to athletes with adequate sleep. Additionally, motivation is adversely affected, meaning even if the athlete had the ability to compete at full capacity, they might lack the necessary motivation to do so.
Sleep deprivation is no joke and can have serious consequences on our health and daily life. When it comes to athletic performance, a study6 was conducted on 10 male team-sport athletes following 30 hours of sleep deprivation. The research showed that a lack of sleep reduced peak voluntary force and muscle glycogen content, increased perceptual strain, and reduced voluntary activation, all of which contributed to decreasing total sprint time.
Sleep deprivation reduces alertness and reaction time7, both of which are critical for team sports like basketball and soccer. Having a slower-than-normal reaction time is not something you want on your team since speed is often essential, and so is alertness. Lack of sleep can also affect accuracy since staying awake for 24 hours can make you feel like you have a blood alcohol content of 0.1.
According to the United States Department of Transportation, there were as many as 684 deaths from car accidents related to drowsy driving8 in 2021. So it’s no surprise that a sleep deficit contributes largely to human error, and in terms of athletics, the statistics reflect that assumption. While 2020 study9 indicates that one night of sleep deprivation may not set young and healthy people too far back, a lack of sleep in the long run, can impact alertness, potentially leading to accidents.
Drowsy Driving Survey
Sleep and Injury: Is There a Link?
A study conducted by Andrew Watson M.D. shows that adequate sleep may reduce the risk of injury or general illness in athletes, as related to reaction time and cognitive performance. The study goes on to reveal that this improved health has the power to directly affect success, as more participation in practice and drills generally leads to improved performance.4
When athletes get the recommended amount of sleep10 they strengthen their immune system, have time to repair their bodies, and increase their capability to train and improve.
- strengthen their immune system,
- have time to repair their bodies,
- and increase their capability to train and improve.
Despite the overwhelming benefits, most athletes do not sleep enough and thus expose themselves to more risk of injury through illness, fatigue, and decreased decision-making ability.
Similarly, young athletes11 may be exposed to an increased risk of musculoskeletal injury, lower baseline neurocognitive functioning, and prolonged post-concussion recovery. We already learned you’re not as alert when sleep-deprived, and while the errors you may make do not pose a physical threat in an office setting, these lapses in judgment can be especially impactful in high-speed, contact sports in which timing is crucial.
Additionally, insufficient sleep leads to quicker exhaustion and diminishes the awareness and judgment of the athletes. As such, the lack of sleep creates a cycle in which athletes are more physically vulnerable and then are more likely to injure themselves due to decreased mental capacity.
Sleep Tips for Athletes
Find an Accurate Way to Measure Your Sleep
People seem to lose sensitivity toward and recognition of their fatigue as they grow more and more sleep deprived. Fatigue Science calls this “renorming,” as the longer we go without sleep, the more normal the sleepiness feels.5
Using tools such as smartphone sleep analytics and the Stanford Sleepiness Scale12 can account for errors in judgment and give you a good idea of where you stand regarding your sleep.
Take a Nap During the Day to Make Up for Any Lost Sleep
Both the Dolphins and Patriots NFL teams have dark rooms within their practice facilities to accommodate for poor sleep among their players. Naps13 are an effective way to catch up on sleep debt, boost cognitive function, and reduce daytime sleepiness, especially for athletes who are often on the road.
Overtraining14 among athletes is associated with increased injury risk and poor sleep. When athletes push their bodies to their extremes, additional recovery time is required for the body to be prepared to continue training and performing. Continuously tearing down muscle without giving the body time to synthesize protein and replenish hormones is most likely to result in excess fatigue.
An increase in fatigue often leads to an abrupt decline in performance, as well as difficulty sleeping.
Eat a Healthy Diet of Protein and Complex Carbs
Research15 on the effects of nutrition and sleep in athletes suggests eating a combination of protein and complex carbs, such as peanut butter and toast, a few minutes before bed. This combination creates the amino acid, tryptophan, which increases sleepiness.
Additionally, protein doesn’t break down quickly like carbohydrates and will sustain your body through the night, but there is a fine line with eating before bed and you musn’t overdo it. A 6-ounce steak might be a bit much to digest but a handful of almonds could do the trick.
Don’t Exercise Directly Before Bed
If you’re having trouble sleeping, sometimes it sounds like a good idea to hop on the elliptical for a good sweat session to wear yourself out before bed. According to the Institute of Human Movement Sciences and Sport at ETH Zurich, this may not be a bad idea. Their study16 shows evening exercise can offer some marginal benefits including more time spent in deeper sleep.
However, ETH Zurich does recommend avoiding exercise in the hour directly before bed, as it takes time for a heart rate to return to a normal level, allowing you to fall asleep.
Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule
Sticking to a schedule will help hone your body’s internal clock, also known as a circadian rhythm. Our bodies are triggered by a variety of factors, including light, temperature, sound, and when we eat. The more we are able to regulate these elements into a routine, the easier it will be for our bodies to identify when it’s time to sleep, and when we should be awake.
Avoid Alcohol and Coffee During the Season
While alcohol may be effective in temporarily decreasing stress and allowing you to loosen up, studies17 have shown it to be a poor choice of sleeping aid. Alcohol disrupts REM cycles, making it difficult to stay asleep all night, allowing your body to properly repair itself. This disruption can even cause daytime sleepiness, poor concentration, and in some cases sleep apnea.
Additionally, while avoiding caffeine before bed is common sense, even drinking coffee at all can significantly reduce sleep time. Several studies18 suggest that coffee can have a significant effect on sleep even without participants noticing the disruptions to their sleep.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do athletes need more sleep?
Just as athletes often need more calories than the average person to fuel their ability to exert so much energy, studies19 show they may also need more rest. While there isn’t one recommended amount for everyone, the ranges generally depend on age, size, and daily activity. It’s not that different when it comes to athletes.
“Getting enough sleep is crucial for athletic performance,” says Dr. David Geier M.D., a renowned specialist in sports medicine.
“Just as athletes need more calories than most people when they’re in training, they need more sleep, too.“, Geier says.
You’re pushing your body in practice, so you need more time to recover.
Younger adolescent athletes will likely need the most sleep of all to account for their physical growth, brain development, and hormonal balances. The Gatorade Sports Science Institute recommends that adolescents get over nine hours per night.19 However, research20 shows that, on average, they are getting just a little over seven.
More specifically, sleep getting extra sleep21 has been found to have a positive effect on mood, reaction times, swim turns, sprint times, tennis serve accuracy, 3-point accuracy, kick stroke efficiency, and free throw.
While sleep duration is vital, the quality of sleep matters as well. If you’re in bed for nine hours but frequently wake up, you could still awake in the morning feeling unrested. To help improve sleep quality, you can implement good sleep hygiene practices, such as keeping a consistent sleep schedule, optimizing your bedroom for better sleep, and sleeping on the right mattress.
Explore our picks: Best Mattress for Athletes
Learn more: 11 Tips to Improve Sleep Quality
Are there differences between men and women?
Harvard Medical School22 has done some research into how the differences in male and female athletes relate to injury.
“Women are actually more prone than men to suffer many of the most common sports-related injuries,” says Dr. Robert H. Schmerling, M.D.
The reasoning behind this claim has to do with both the way women play and the way they are built. Research shows ankle sprains, stress fractures, shoulder trouble, knee injuries, and plantar fasciitis are more likely to occur among women in athletics than men.
While we know good sleep can reduce the risk of injury and quicken recovery among both sexes, research shows that women are more prone to struggle with sleep and subsequently also have higher risk factors for certain diseases. According to research, women are 1.3 to 1.8 times23 more prone to insomnia than men. With that in mind, it makes sense that they’re also more prone to injury given that they’re more likely to be sleep deprived.
Are there differences in sleep needs between sports?
As sleep has a demonstrated positive effect on response time, accuracy, speed, decision-making, and career length, sports that require high performance in these measures make sleep especially important. For example, basketball, soccer, and football each require fast reaction times, good decision-making, and accuracy. Tennis requires exceptionally fast reaction time and decision-making.
While gymnastics may not require the former skills, career length is often a struggle, and improved sleep may help extend it. Most sports require at least one or a combination of these elements, and sleep is shown to be an important factor in their successful performance.
Can you increase HGH naturally with sleep?
While human growth hormone (HGH) supplements24 are illegal in the realm of competitive sports, many athletes look for natural ways to increase the production of this vital hormone. HGH boosts protein production, regulates fat storage, and is responsible for a variety of important functions including the growth of muscle, bone, and collagen, according to Harvard Medical School25.
However, the best organic way to boost the production of HGH is through sleep, a good diet, and exercise26.
Our Final Thoughts
While sleep is important for everyone, it’s absolutely essential for athletes. Sleep provides the necessary repairs to the muscles that were broken down during training, and clears the brain of all unnecessary material, allowing cognitive function to increase. Accounting for improvement in a wide range of performance measures, it’s not surprising that professional teams everywhere are turning back to the simplest of techniques to get an edge on the competition.
Katie writes content at Sleep Advisor, where she has finally found people who appreciate her true passion for sleep. Based in Austin, Texas, she graduated with a degree in Communications and enjoys combining creativity with research to improve the world’s sleep, starting with her sleepwalking husband.
- Underwood, John., White, Keara. “Sleep and Recovery”. William & Mary. Webpage accessed July 10, 2024.
- “Bedtime protein for bigger gains? Here’s the scoop”. Science Daily. 2019.
- “Human Growth Hormone (HGH)”. Cleveland Clinic. Last Modified June 21, 2022.
- Watson, Andrew M. “Sleep and Athletic Performance”. National Library of Medicine. 2017.
- “The Science of Sleep”. Fatigue Science. Webpage accessed July 10, 2024.
- Halson, Shona L. “Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep”. National Library of Medicine. 2014.
- “Sleep Deprivation”. Better Health Channel. Last Modified June 30, 2014.
- “Drowsy Driving”. United States Department of Transportation. Webpage accessed July 10, 2024.
- Ołpińska-Lischka, Marta., et al. “The Influence of 24-hr Sleep Deprivation on Psychomotor Vigilance in Young Women and Men”. 2020.
- Sargent, Charli., et al. “How Much Sleep Does an Elite Athlete Need?”. National Library of Medicine. 2021.
- Dwivedi MD, Shashank., et al. “Sleep and Injury in the Young Athlete”. JBJS Reviews. 2019.
- “Stanford Sleepiness Scale (SSS)”. Stanford University. Webpage accessed July 10, 2024.
- “Napping, an Important Fatigue Countermeasure”. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Last modified April 1, 2020.
- “Overtraining: What It Is, Symptoms, and Recovery”. Hospital for Special Surgery. 2021.
- Doherty, Ronan., et al. “Sleep and Nutrition Interactions: Implications for Athletes”. MDPI. 2019.
- Bergamin, Fabio. “Physical activity in the evening does not cause sleep problems”. ETH Zurich. 2018.
- He, Sean., et al. “Alcohol and Sleep Related Problems” Science Direct. 2019.
- O’Callaghan, Frances., et al. “Effects of caffeine on sleep quality and daytime functioning”. National Library of Medicine. 2018.
- Halson, Shona L. “Sleep and Athletes”. Gatorade Sports Science Institute. 2017.
- Carskadon, Mary A., Acebo, Christine. “Regulation of Sleepiness in Adolescents: Update, Insights, and Speculation” Sleep for Science. 2002.
- Vitale, Kenneth C., et al. “Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations”. National Library of Medicine. 2019.
- “The gender gap in sports injuries”. Harvard Health Publishing. 2020.
- Frange, Cristina., et al. “Women’s Sleep Disorders: Integrative Care”. National Library of Medicine. 2017.
- Holt, Richard., Ho, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Growth Hormone in Sports”. Oxford Academic. 2019.
- “Growth hormone, athletic performance, and aging”. Harvard Medical School. 2021.
- “Too much of a good thing: the health risks of human growth hormone”. Australian Goverment. Department of Health and Aged Care. 2019.