Sleep and Athletes: How Sleep Improves Athletic Performance

Learn how sleep aids in muscle regeneration, mental focus, and injury recovery.

By Sheryl Grassie

The importance of sleep for good athletic performance is being supported by more and more research. Sleep is equally as important as diet, exercise, and mental focus for athletes to perform at their max.

When looking at the importance of sleep for overall health and wellbeing, there is a good research base that lets us know how critical it is. However, the importance of sleep for athletes, particularly their athletic performance, is still being studied. What we do know, is that the body recovers and regenerates cells during sleep. Considering how hard athletes work their bodies, it’s crucial they prioritize time to rest and recover. In fact, athletes need more sleep than the average person and a lack of sleep will affect performance in a number of ways.

Why Sleep is as Important as Diet and Exercise

Henry Emmons MD, author of The Chemistry of Joy, once wrote that there are four major factors that affect health and wellbeing; diet, exercise, mental situation, and social connection. In line with this notion, athletes were encouraged to eat well, train, maintain a strong mental focus, and identify as part of their team. But what about sleep? Dr. Emmons and others are now ranking sleep as an equally important factor in maintaining good health. As the research grows, we understand more and more how sleep affects both mental and physical performance. And, although athletes use their bodies, their performance outcomes are highly tied to their level of mental functioning. In short, athletes need to be in “top shape” all around, with every system of the body working at its best in order to compete and win. Sleep is now considered essential equally as vital as diet and exercise to achieve this pinnacle of athletic fitness.

You may be wondering exactly how and why sleep has achieved this ranking. Currently, we know that diet, exercise, and sleep all work in tandem to support proper functioning in the body. There are additional components like fresh air, sunlight, mental focus and meaningful connection that all play a slightly less important role, but diet, exercise, and sleep are the three essentials.

They work together as a team.  Food provides the nutrients needed to exert energy, while sleep balances the time the body is active by repairing and refueling the body for another round. There are amazingly complicated processes taking place that make this system actually function, but for our purposes, it is enough to know that sleep restores and rebuilds, and for athletes that is essential. If there was no repairing or rebuilding of the muscles, they would soon stop working and athletes could not compete. A poor night’s sleep equates to less repair and less energy, which in turn results in lowered performance. For athletes to perform at their best, they must pay as much attention to sleep as to diet and exercise.

Sleep and Athletic Performance

Sleep affects an athlete’s ability to learn new skills, control appetite, maintain weight, balance stress hormones, and maintain cognitive functioning. Because of the level of physical exertion an athlete engages in, it is believed that athletes need more sleep than the typical amount of average adult — seven to nine hours nightly. For athletes, it’s 10.

A number of pro athletes have been quoted saying they need 10 to 12 hours of sleep to be at their top level of performance. And the more you understand about what sleep does for the body the easier it is to believe this. To summarize, research shows that increased amounts of sleep improve an athlete’s accuracy and speed, reaction time, judgment, focus, and recovery. Athletes who sleep more also have fewer accidents and less illness.

Sleep has a direct impact on two major physical systems on the body which is vital to athletic performance—the muscles and the central nervous system—both of which repair themselves during sleep.

Sleep and Muscle Regeneration

Intense exercise, such as the kind athletes engage in, shifts the normal pattern of light sleep (non-REM) and deep sleep (REM), elongating the light sleep phase and shortening the deep sleep phase. This is significant because it is only during deep sleep, or REM sleep, the body produces human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is important because it is responsible for muscle tissue repair and muscle recovery. With less time in REM sleep, an athlete runs the risk of too little HGH and can suffer from insufficient muscle repair. HGH also controls fat burning and bone strength. Some athletes take supplemental HGH to support muscle repair, overall health, and performance, but the best remedy is adequate sleep.

Sleep and the Central Nervous System

The central nervous system is sometimes referred to as the body’s information highway. It is the process by which the body communicates information. Insufficient sleep doesn’t allow the nervous system to repair so it can’t do its job during the day. This may not sound like a very serious thing, but in fact, it is. Experts compare a sleep-deprived central nervous system to alcohol intoxication, stating it can be more dangerous to drive sleep deprived than to drive drunk; it has that profound an effect on judgment. I’m sure no coach would recommend a player play drunk, but lack of sleep can result in the same compromise to perception, reaction time, focus, and accuracy. The central nervous system also controls pain tolerance which can affect performance.

Sleep and Injury Recovery

A very important outcome of healthy muscle regeneration and a high functioning nervous system is that they support repair and healing from injury. Injury is a natural part of an athlete’s life. From a small sprain to a major break the amount of time it takes for an athlete to recover can determine careers. Sleep plays a vital role it that timeframe, and increased sleep, once an injury occurs, can expedite the healing process.

How Athletes Can Get Better Sleep

Now that we have established the importance of sleep for athletes, what can they do to get it? This applies to being at home in training mode or when traveling and dealing with jet lag. Athletes need to know the importance of sleep and that they need more than the recommended amounts. They can employ all the usual sleep hygiene methods such as:

  • Refrain from caffeine later in the day
  • Avoid napping
  • Don’t eat after dinner
  • Avoid alcohol consumption
  • Take magnesium and/or melatonin
  • No screen time 2 hours before bed
  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, go to bed and get up at the same time every day
  • Reduce artificial light in the evening
  • Sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room,  using room darkening curtains if needed
  • Have a good supportive mattress

For athletes, who really need that extra sleep; it is also recommended that they do nap to catch up. It is further suggested that they be very conscious of travel schedules and try sticking to a specific bedtime even when on the road.

What Athletes Should Look for in a Mattress

Although athletes can’t choose their mattress when traveling, they can get an extra supportive bed at home. The top three considerations when purchasing a mattress to support an athletic career or an active lifestyle are cooling properties, pressure relief, and isolating motion. Check out the best mattresses for athletes here.


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