How Sleep Affects Athletes’ Performance

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Sleep is an essential function for all people. Adequate rest allows the body to recover while consolidating memories (1), regulating emotions, and preventing illness. While sleep is important for everyone, it is crucial for athletes who want to maintain physical health and reach new performance goals.

How Is Sleep Different for Athletes?

Quality rest is particularly important for athletes. Experts recommend that athletes aim for between seven and nine hours (2) of rest per night, though elite performers are often advised to get at least nine hours. While nine hours of rest may be excessive for many non-athletes, the additional rest allows athletes to fully recover from the stresses of training.

In addition to the extra hours of sleep per night, some studies suggest that napping after a night of poor rest can be beneficial for athletes. Though napping is not always recommended for less active individuals, a short nap could help improve alertness and performance (3) for athletes who have lost sleep.

Athletes may also encounter different obstacles to getting adequate rest. Demanding training, unique competition schedules, and travel can all interfere with an athlete’s ability to get enough quality sleep. Learning to get enough rest given these challenges can be difficult, though working with a coach and learning to manage issues like jet lag can be helpful for those dealing with a tricky schedule.

How Does Sleep Affect Performance?

Research suggests that increased quality rest can noticeably improve performance across many different sports. Additional sleep has been associated with increased speed and accuracy in sports such as tennis (4), basketball (5), and swimming (6). Some athletes who increase their amount of sleep also reported improved mood and reduced fatigue.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Athletes

Sleep deprivation in athletes is associated with a number of undesirable effects. Some signs that an athlete may not be getting enough quality rest include:

  • Quicker Exhaustion: If an athlete begins to feel overly tired during normal activities, it could be a sign they are not getting enough rest. Research suggests that sleep deprivation can cause athletes to become exhausted more quickly (7), which can reduce performance, even during training.
  • Daytime Sleepiness: Feeling sleepy during the day is a common side effect (8) of sleep loss and may affect athletic performance.
  • Decreased Reaction Time: Sleep deprivation is linked to decreased reaction time (9), which can be particularly noticeable for athletes in sports that require quick reflexes.
  • Difficulty Making Decisions: Adequate rest supports executive functions (10) in the brain, which are important for decision-making. Sleep-deprived individuals may find it difficult to make decisions quickly.
  • Injury or Illness: Sleep is an important time for cells and tissue in the body to recover (11). Poor sleep may mean that the body does not have enough time to repair after the stress of training, which can lead to injury or sickness. Sleep deprivation has been associated with increased injury risk (12) in young athletes.

Sleep Tips for Athletes

It can be challenging to get adequate rest, particularly when working around a specific training or competition schedule. Some ways athletes can improve sleep quality include:

  • Optimize the Bedroom Environment: The body is regulated by circadian rhythms (13), which use environmental cues such as temperature and light to know when it is time to initiate sleep. A dark and cool sleep area can help signal to the body that it is time to rest.
  • Avoid Caffeine Before Bed: Caffeine is a stimulant, which means that it makes the body feel alert. Consuming caffeine near bedtime can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep (14).
  • Stick to a Schedule: Maintaining a schedule can be challenging for athletes who travel or work around competition schedules. However, finding some consistency in sleep times can lead to a better night’s sleep (15). Working with a coach can be helpful when building a schedule that supports daily life and the unique demands of competitions.
  • Create a Relaxing Routine: A soothing bedtime routine can help you relax and prepare your body and mind for sleep. Reading, journaling, or taking a warm bath can help you ease into rest, which may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep.
  • Limit Electronics: Electronic backlit devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops emit a special type of light, called blue light (16). Blue light can interfere with our natural circadian rhythm, which can delay feelings of sleepiness and make it difficult to go to bed. Avoiding screens before bed can help athletes fall asleep faster and rest deeper.

Sleep is an essential aspect of any healthy and active life. Proper rest encourages recovery and performance for athletes, and it can be as important as diet or training. Learning to increase sleep quality and quantity helps athletes stay strong while pushing to reach new goals.

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