From Cryotherapy to absurd caloric intake, professional athletes such as Tom Brady and Michael Phelps always seem to be touting their new and often expensive methods to increase performance and extend their prime. To be fair, Brady is still performing phenomenally at age forty-one, but how much of that can we really attribute to his vegan, anti-inflammatory alkaline diet? More and more research is pointing to the idea that the best method to increase performance is actually much simpler: improved sleep.
Though it may seem easy enough, two problems get in the way: athletes are notoriously bad at measuring their sleep efficacy, and athletics just make it hard to get a good night’s rest. That’s why we put together some tips you can use to improve your performance through rest, but first we’ll cover how these ideas work on a deeper level.
How Sleep Helps the Body Repair Itself
How Does Sleep Improve Performance?
Sleep and Injury: Is there a Link?
Frequently Asked Questions
Sleep Tips for Athletes
How Sleep Helps the Body Repair Itself
No matter how much time you spend lifting weights, counting carbs, or researching on bodybuilder.com, you won’t see much in terms of results without proper rest. This is because while exercise tears down muscle, sleep rebuilds it. This process is especially vital for athletes who are trying to build muscle mass.
There are five stages, and the deepest and most restorative stages do not occur until later in the night at phases three and four. 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 synthesis, 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 are sabotaging their own efforts and 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 Human Growth Hormone (HGH) production spikes soon after you fall asleep, boosting protein production, fat utilization, and insulin production, according to a study conducted by Brunel University.
While rest is essential for repairing and preparing the body for exercise, it plays just as large a role in maximizing an athlete’s potential. 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 Sleep 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 when 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 may lack the necessary motivation to do so.
In 2011, Stanford University conducted a study on male collegiate basketball players monitoring the relationship between sleep schedules and performance. After a period of two weeks where basketball players were instructed to sleep an average of ten hours per night, making up for lost shuteye with day-time naps, the basketball players were found to have improved in a variety of areas including sprint strength. On average the players improved by an astounding average of almost one second on their 282-foot sprints.
The same basketball players improved in shooting accuracy, demonstrating an increase of 9 percent in free throws, and 9.3 percent in three-point shots. Cheri Mah, who conducted the study at Stanford University attributed this improvement in part to decreased daytime sleepiness, saying sleep is an “unrecognized, but likely critical factor in reaching peak performance.”
According to a 1988 study called Catastrophes, sleep, and public-policy: Consensus Report, a considerable amount of tragedies including Chernobyl and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, were partially caused by sleep deprivation. So it’s no surprise that a sleep deficit contributes largely to human error, and in terms of athletics, the statistics reflect that assumption. A study conducted by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute indicates that after only one night of reduced sleep, psychomotor function is significantly decreased in a variety of measures including reaction time and decision making.
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 lead to improved performance.
When athletes get the recommended amount of sleep they
- 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.
The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine conducted a study that showed restricted sleep leads to increased injury risk through several factors, one of the most notable being increased mental errors. While these errors may not pose a physical threat in an office setting, these lapses in judgement can be especially impactful in high-speed, contact sports where timing is crucial.
Additionally, the study shows insufficient sleep leads to quicker exhaustion and diminishes the awareness and judgment of the athletes. Lastly, a lack directly causes injury in the form of physical stress, inflammatory markers, and weight gain. It creates a cycle where athletes are more physically vulnerable and then are more likely to injure themselves due to decreased mental capacity.
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, studies 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, though research shows that on average they are getting just a little over seven.
For adults, various studies have shown that sleeping for a period of ten hours per night has led to increased athletic performance. However, these studies haven’t been performed with a non-athletic subject group, meaning it is possible that these benefits could extend beyond the realm of athletics, or strictly apply to those who burn a higher than average daily number of calories.
It's also important that not only do athletes get a good amount of sleep, but the quality of sleep matters as well. This can range from the setup of the room, blocking out unnecessary noise, and having the right mattress.
Are There Differences Between Men and Women?
In the realm of athletics, it is no secret that men and women operate and perform differently, and Harvard Medical School has done some research into how these differences relate to injury. Despite the fact that NFL football players have become the posterchildren for concussions and other common injuries, “Women are actually more prone than men to suffer many of the most common sports-related injuries,” says Dr. Robert H. Schmerling, MD.
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 all more likely to occur among women in athletics, than men.
While we know 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 from Duke University, this may be due to both psychological and physical differences between men and women. Not only are women more prone to certain sports injuries, but they are also more likely to have poor sleep which can increase injury risk and prolong recovery time.
Are There Differences in Sleep Needs Between Sports?
While conclusive research showing that certain sports require more sleep than others doesn’t exist, there are some parallels we can draw between the benefits of rest and the requirements of individual sports.
As sleep has a demonstrated positive effect on response time, accuracy, speed, decision making, and career length, sports that necesitate 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) supplements are illegal in the realm of competitive sports, many athletes look for natural ways to boost 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 a study conducted at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
The study showed the best organic way to boost production of HGH is through sleep and exercise. The hormone is secreted in pulses, one of the largest occurring within the first hour, according to a study performed at the University of Chicago.
While this hormone is shown to aid in the process of building muscle, greater muscle mass is not always equal to improved strength or performance. Muscle growth, known as hypertrophy, is a common result of resistance training, however larger muscles may not always be stronger according to a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The study evaluated both men and women, showing that while men experienced more muscle gain in terms of mass, women outpaced them by far in the strength they gained through their workout regimen. This not only shows that the methods really matter, but that muscle size isn’t as important as building strength when it comes to performance.
Sleep Tips for Athletes
Find an Accurate Way to Measure Your Sleep
Athletes are notoriously bad at measuring their sleep efficacy. According to the aforementioned sleep study at the University of Pennsylvania, research subjects seemed to lose sensitivity toward and recognition of their fatigue as they grew more and more sleep deprived. Fatigue Science calls this “renorming,” as the longer we go without sleep, the more normal the sleepiness feels.
Using tools such as smartphone sleep analytics and the Stanford or Epworth Sleepiness Scale can account for errors in judgement and give you a good idea of where you stand in regards to your snoozing.
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. Several studies have shown that naps 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.
Overtraining 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 will result in excess fatigue, according to a new study conducted by French scientists.
The study suggests that this increase in fatigue often leads to an abrupt decline in performance, as well as difficulty sleeping. According to the study, if you often find yourself waking up in the middle of the night due to your own excess movement, you may be overtrained.
Eat a Healthy Diet of Protein and Complex Carbs
Research 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, as long as you don’t over do it. A six 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 study 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, studies 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. The study goes so far as to suggest that coffee can have a significant effect on sleep even without participants noticing the disruptions to their sleep.
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 is a content writer and serial hobby collector who enjoys naps almost as much as her pets do. When she isn't writing, she likes to ride her motorcycle, catch Pokemon with her hubby, and practice yoga with her dog.
How does sleep affect a athletes Performance? ›
Better sleep may allow more recovery which may improve training quality and energy levels. Days when athletes slept longer (≥8 h), or reported higher quality sleep were associated with a significantly reduced chance of injury and illness.Does sleep affect sport? ›
Both increased quantity and quality of sleep helps athletes improve performance in many areas related to the demands of the sport. A Stanford study of men's basketball players who extended their sleep to 10 hours a night found several positive outcomes. The players ran faster in both half-court and full-court sprints.How does sleep affect football players? ›
After a long practice or game, when an athlete has fatigued their body and mind, sleep becomes crucial. Muscle fatigue and breakdown, which occurs after strenuous activity, and needs adequate time to heal for the muscles to repair and regenerate before the next activity in order to refrain from injury.How does sleep affect athletes mental health? ›
Conclusions: Short sleep duration, poor sleep quality, and daytime fatigue in student athletes are all associated with depression, anxiety, stress, poor mental health days, and decreased social support. These associations are not accounted for solely by stress.How does poor sleep affect athletic performance? ›
The Risks of Poor Sleep for Athletes
Sleep deprivation can lead to decreased stamina and quicker exhaustion. It can also lead to a decreased reaction time and lower accuracy. It is also linked to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
Lack of sleep leads to detriments in job performance, productivity, career progression and satisfaction, and an increase in job-related accidents, absenteeism, and counterproductive work behaviors. Conversely, better sleep has been linked to improved memory, knowledge acquisition, and learning.Why is rest important for athletes? ›
It's essential to give your body enough time spent not training to replenish your energy (glycogen) stores and allow your damaged muscles to recover. Otherwise, your performance will be compromised and you may experience chronic muscle soreness and pain.Why do I perform better with less sleep? ›
This is because our brain is constantly forming new connections while we are awake. The longer we are awake, the more active our minds become. Scientists believe that this is partly why sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression.Does sleep affect strength? ›
Good sleep quality is associated with greater muscle strength, while short sleep duration may be a risk factor for decreased muscle strength in university students.What stage of sleep is most important for athletes? ›
REM Sleep. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is one of the most critical stages of sleep for endurance athletes. During REM sleep testosterone release is at its highest, information is processed, and tissue and cell repair are taking place.
Do athletes need a lot of sleep? ›
How much sleep do athletes need? Pro athletes typically need more than most—it's recommended that they get 8-10 hours every night. But for the average adult, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night to avoid the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.Why is sleep important in football? ›
There is a very strong link between poor sleep and the development of muscle injuries. We know that players who sleep below eight hours per night over a 24-month period will have a 1.7 times greater risk of developing an injury.” As the research has become more convincing, players have taken more notice.How do athletes sleep before big game? ›
If the day of the game arrives and you are worried that you haven't slept enough the night before to perform at your best – you can plan a carefully timed nap. A 20 minute nap about two hours before your event should provide extra alertness just in time for you to hit the field.How many athletes struggle with sleep? ›
Insomnia symptoms are reported between 27 and 37% of athletes (Khalladi et al., 2019; Silva et al., 2019; Ballesio et al., 2021), whilst sleep maintenance insomnia has been reported in 77% athletes (Thornton et al., 2017).How sleep quality affects brain performance? ›
Getting enough hours of high-quality sleep fosters attention and concentration, which are a prerequisite for most learning. Sleep also supports numerous other aspects of thinking including memory, problem-solving, creativity, emotional processing, and judgment.How does lack of sleep affect student athletes? ›
Compared to non-athletes, student athletes are more likely to drink and drive. View Source when sleep-deprived. Sleep loss also affects academic performance, the immune system, and can be a risk factor for suicidal ideation.How does sleep affect behavior? ›
Studies show people who are sleep deprived report increases in negative moods (anger, frustration, irritability, sadness) and decreases in positive moods. And sleeplessness is often a symptom of mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.How does sleep affect functioning? ›
“Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” says Dr. Michael Twery, a sleep expert at NIH. “It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health.” Research shows that lack of sleep increases the risk for obesity, heart disease and infections.Do good athletes need rest? ›
While many people believe off days are for the faint-hearted, taking a day off from training can be beneficial for your athletic performance. Whether you're exercising to lead a healthier lifestyle or you're a competitive athlete, taking time to allow your body to rest can help to support your musculoskeletal health.What are the five importance of rest? ›
Rest is vital for better mental health, increased concentration and memory, a healthier immune system, reduced stress, improved mood and even a better metabolism.
How do athletes recover so quickly? ›
Some of the more common recovery techniques utilised by athletes include hydrotherapy, active recovery, stretching, compression garments and massage. In the previous 5-10 years, there has been a significant increase in research examining both the effects of recovery on performance and potential mechanisms.Does less sleep give you more energy? ›
Sleep results in both a reduction in performance-based energy demands and thermoregulatory needs. In the absence of sleep, energy is not stored and instead one third more energy is used.How a lack of sleep kills your productivity? ›
Skipping sleep impairs your brain function across the board. It slows your ability to process information and problem solve, kills your creativity, and catapults your stress levels and emotional reactivity.How does sleep affect motivation? ›
The mental and physical strain of sleep deprivation can dampen the spirits of even the greatest optimist. The effects of poor quality sleep can manifest as mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and depression - leading to plummeting motivation and ability to see the larger picture.How much does sleep affect performance? ›
Sleep has a positive effect on speed, accuracy, and reaction time. Without a good night's sleep, you may notice that you are not able to think clearly or react as quickly during your training or game. You may be more sensitive, moody, or irritable which can affect how well you get along with your teammates and coach.Does sleeping improve skills? ›
The non-REM stages of sleep seem to prime the brain for good learning the next day. If you haven't slept, your ability to learn new things could drop by up to 40%. “You can't pull an all-nighter and still learn effectively,” Walker says.How much sleep do NFL players get? ›
“Normally, it's normal to get between five-six hours of sleep some days, just because there's so much to do because I feel like we have a responsibility to continue watching film and to keep going over our plays when we go home – but that's just from a nine-year vet. I don't know what the other guys are doing.”Why do athletes consider sleep part of their training? ›
The benefits of good sleep come into particular focus for athletes. Post-exercise recovery with extra sleep accelerates the building of muscle, strength, and endurance. Without proper sleep, athletes suffer from poorer reaction times, longer recovery times, and worsened performance.How does sleep affect muscle recovery? ›
Remember: Sleep helps muscles release protein-building amino acids into the bloodstream at an increased rate which helps them grow bigger and stronger over time. Sleep helps to release growth hormones during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which helps with muscle repair.How much sleep do student athletes need? ›
While seven hours is considered the minimum amount of sleep a typical adult should get, college students – especially highly active ones, like athletes – need at least eight to nine hours for optimal functioning, Grandner said in an interview.
How often do pro athletes sleep? ›
Interestingly, there is a clear difference between team and individual sports when it comes to how much sleep professional athletes require. Research shows that individual sport athletes sleep on average 6.5 hours a night while team sports come in at 7 hours.Why are athletes always sleepy? ›
An athlete in a low energy or low carbohydrate state is very likely to feel fatigued. Poor nutritional timing can also cause fatigue. Skipping breakfast or only having a nutrition bar for lunch does not provide enough energy to keep an athlete going throughout the day.What is the best sleep position for athletes? ›
Back. Although your bedmate may be angered by increased snoring that sleeping on the back can cause, this position is considered the best for aligning the spine properly. With the entire body depending on the spine for support, the athlete will gain the most from sleeping in the back position.How many hours of sleep should you get before a football game? ›
"Eight to nine hours is ideal.
"If you sleep too much, it will impact on the following night's sleep. "Some people get nervous before a big match and might find that they can't sleep as well and that's perfectly acceptable.
As Dr. Walker points out, “Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that few athletes are abusing enough.” He goes on to state that Roger Federer, Usain Bolt and LeBron James regularly get 12 hours of sleep a day, 10 hours of sleep at night and 2 hours of naps during the day.Why do athletes wake up so early? ›
It turns out many athletes and famous people schedule their training early in the morning. Some use it as a time management solution, others feel they have more energy early on in the day. There also seems to be a growing number of people (myself included) who see it as a time for meditation and brainstorming.Do athletes nap before games? ›
In fact, naps are considered essential in these athletes' pregame routines. Unlike their counterparts in the NFL and MLB, hockey and basketball players traditionally have morning skates and shootarounds on the mornings of days when they have games. Then, in the afternoon, players are napping.Do NFL players nap before games? ›
N.F.L. players are least likely to nap because they play only once a week, usually during the day, and much of their work schedule, revolving around team meetings and practices, resembles that of a traditional 9-to-5 worker. In baseball, major leaguers have less disruptive lives on the road than N.B.A.Do elite athletes sleep well? ›
In the present study, elite athletes spent approximately 40 min less in bed, but achieved on average a similar total sleep time, i.e., ~7 h of sleep per night. All athletes presented good sleep efficiency (88.3%; individual range between 80.7 and 91.5%).Does sleep boost IQ? ›
Less sleep lowers IQ scores and grades
According to Coren, scores on intelligence tests decline cumulatively on each successive day that you sleep less than you normally sleep. The daily decline is approximately one IQ point for the first hour of sleep loss, two for the next, and four for the next.
Can your brain function on 4 hours of sleep? ›
For most people, 4 hours of sleep per night isn't enough to wake up feeling rested and mentally alert, no matter how well they sleep. There's a common myth that you can adapt to chronically restricted sleep, but there's no evidence that the body functionally adapts to sleep deprivation.How much sleep is too little? ›
For adults, getting less than seven hours of sleep a night on a regular basis has been linked with poor health, including weight gain, having a body mass index of 30 or higher, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and depression.Why is rest so important for an athlete? ›
It's essential to give your body enough time spent not training to replenish your energy (glycogen) stores and allow your damaged muscles to recover. Otherwise, your performance will be compromised and you may experience chronic muscle soreness and pain.How many hours does LeBron James sleep? ›
Sleep is a crucial aspect of any athlete's routine, and LeBron James is no exception. He averages 12 hours of sleep daily, usually broken down to 8-9 hours at night and three hours of napping in the afternoon.Do athletes need more rest? ›
If you're an athlete in training, you may need more. "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. Athletes in training should sleep about an hour extra.How much rest do athletes need? ›
How much sleep do athletes need? Pro athletes typically need more than most—it's recommended that they get 8-10 hours every night. But for the average adult, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night to avoid the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.How long did Michael Jordan sleep for? ›
During his heyday, Michael Jordan reportedly slept only a few hours a night. It's a fact that's often used as evidence to prove Jordan was something other than human. While what he did on such little sleep was of course incredible, but the fact Jordan wasn't sleeping? Well, that's just life in the NBA.How long did Kobe sleep for? ›
Polyphasic and biphasic sleepers break up their sleep into multiple sessions so that they can sleep less and still function normally. Kobe broke his sleep into two two-hour sessions, giving him a total of around 4 hours of sleep a night.Did Kobe sleep 4 hours a night? ›
Kobe Bryant rarely slept
So he wasn't going to let things like sleep get in the way of accomplishing that goal. Bryant admitted to only getting three to four hours of sleep every night. By 4:30 a.m., the alarm was off and it was time for basketball.
Here's one possible explanation: Normally during sleep, you'll go through 4 to 5 sleep cycles. In the beginning of the night, you'll spend more time in deep sleep (or slow wave sleep, stages 3 and 4). Notice with each cycle, stages 3 and 4 get shorter and shorter, while stage REM gets longer and longer.
Why do I feel better after 6 hours of sleep than 8? ›
So why do people think they are able to function optimally on 6 hours of regular sleep? This is because of a natural human phenomenon known as 'renorming'. Renorming means that we are only able to compare how we feel today to how we felt yesterday or the day before.Does lack of sleep make you age? ›
Beneath the surface, your body is aging too, and sleep loss can speed up the process. A study done by UCLA researchers discovered that just a single night of insufficient sleep can make an older adults' cells age quicker. This might not seem like a big deal, but it has the potential to bring on a lot of other diseases.