Written by: Allyson Hoffman
Updated March 11, 2021
You probably already know that a balanced diet and regular exercise are important to being a successful athlete. But sleep is a crucial third factor that many overlook. In fact, without it, diet and exercise can suffer (1).
Regular sleep offers numerous benefits. During sleep, your body gets the necessary time to restore itself (2). This restoration gives you the energy you need for the next day. Throughout the stages of sleep, you can form memories and process information (3). Sleep ensures muscle growth, recovery, and illness prevention. The benefits of sleep are especially important for athletes.
Practicing good sleep hygiene is important to getting good sleep. Consider your sleep environment. You want to make sure your room is dark, cool, and free of noise. You also want to make sure you’ve got the right mattress. Whether you’re competing on a field or in a pool, quality sleep will help you remain strong, healthy, and ready to perform your best.
How Much Sleep Do Athletes Need?
The standard recommendation for athletes is to achieve between seven and nine hours of sleep every night (4). However, elite athletes should aim for closer to nine hours.
Muscle-Building Hormones are Produced During Sleep
During sleep, crucial muscle-building growth hormone is secreted (5). This hormone production typically happens during deep sleep, also known as stage 3 of non-REM sleep. Also during sleep, your muscles relax. This relaxation allows your muscles to be relieved of tension and can reduce pain.
Without sufficient sleep, the production of growth hormones is impaired. You may find your muscles are still tense or sore in the morning. Long-term lack of sleep can even lead to the development of chronic pain (6).
Most Tissue Growth and Repair Occurs While You Sleep
When you do strength exercises such as weight lifting, you create small tears in your muscles. These cells and tissues are repaired during sleep, making your muscles stronger. Sleep also boosts your overall muscle mass.
Less Sleeping Means More Eating
Without sleep, your body decreases production of a hormone that indicates when you feel full and increases an appetite-inducing hormone (7). Changes in these hormones mean that when you sleep less, you feel more hungry, and you are likely to increase the amount you eat since you don't feel full as quickly.
A lack of sleep also lowers your sensitivity to insulin. As a result, the muscle fuel source glycogen (8) may not be replenished adequately. Without a regular restoration of glycogen, athletes are less likely to be able to train as strenuously or frequently as they could otherwise. Additionally, when your insulin sensitivity decreases, your risk for diabetes increases.
Sleep Improves Muscle Coordination
Because sleep helps consolidate memory, it’s essential for memorizing a play on the court or choreography for the stage. But sleep can sharpen your skills in other ways:
- Increased Accuracy: In a study of university tennis players, athletes increased their sleep to at least nine hours each day (9). Their serves improved incredibly: from 35.7% accuracy to 41.8% accuracy.
- Faster Reaction Times and Speeds: Male and female university swimmers who increased their sleep to 10 hours nightly saw positive results. They dived off the block faster and improved their turn times. The athletes also improved their 15 meter swim times.
- Improved Overall Performance: University men’s basketball players who slept 10 hours a night during the season found many areas of improvement. Their half-court and full-court sprints were faster (10). Their free throw percentages increased by at least 9%. Sleepiness and fatigue decreased, and overall mental and physical health improved.
Sleep Prevents Illness
As you sleep, your body produces cytokines, which are molecules that help the body’s immune system fight infections. If you’re already sick, sleep can help you recover.
On the other hand, a lack of sleep increases the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. These molecules impair the function of the immune system. This puts you at a higher risk of getting sick.
Sleep deprivation can also make preventative health measures less effective. For example, sleep-deprived people who receive a flu vaccination produce less than half of the flu antibodies of well-rested people who receive the same vaccine.
How Else Does Sleep Impact Athletic Performance?
To perform your best, you need to be alert and ready to make decisions quickly. Unfortunately, a lack of sleep can impair your response time and even your judgment. Long-term, sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive decline (11) in athletes.
Various studies have shown the negative impacts of a lack of sleep on athletes. Both volleyball players and runners have shown increased exhaustion (12) without enough sleep. The accuracy of tennis serves decreases (13) after a night of only 5 hours of sleep. Also, after a night with no sleep, sprint times of runners decrease (14).
A lack of sleep can also impact overall physical health. People who do not sleep enough are at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. Mental health is impacted by a lack of sleep, too. Sleep deprivation can lead to irritability and even depression or anxiety.
The body is an athlete’s greatest asset. Diet, exercise, and sleep are all important to maintaining health and ensuring quality performance. The good news is that regular exercise can help you sleep well at night.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31288293/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26447948/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://medlineplus.gov/healthysleep.html Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2013/10000/Sleep,_Recovery,_and_Athletic_Performance__A_Brief.8.aspx Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8627466/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24290442/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21112019/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29444266/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26325012/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21731144/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30197545/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19264040/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23916998/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21200339/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.