How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance

Sleep Strong, Perform Stronger Tomorrow.
How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance
Tom Greenspan
December 21, 2022

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Poor sleep quality or insufficient sleep can lead to impaired cognitive function, reduced endurance, slower reaction times, and a higher risk of injuries.

To achieve their goals and optimize their performance, athletes must prioritize getting enough quality sleep. For athletes, regular physical activity and prioritizing various aspects of their lives is crucial to overcome sleep debt. 

Inadequate sleep can lead to decreased reaction times, impaired decision-making, and reduced physical performance, while getting enough quality sleep can improve physical performance, reaction times, and decision-making abilities. Athletes must prioritize sleep as part of their training regimen, and coaches and trainers should work with athletes to develop strategies to ensure they are getting enough quality sleep.

To know more about the link between sleep and athletic performance, read this guide for further details.

Connection Of Sleep With Physical Activities

Physical activity is crucial in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially for athletes. Regular exercise increases longevity and reduces the risk of various diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Additionally, exercise benefits mental health as it lowers the risk of anxiety and depression, while improving average sleep quality.

To perform at their best, athletes must focus on training, nutrition, rest, recovery, and sleep habits. Any deficiency in these areas can negatively impact their overall performance, including their sleep quality.

Sleep plays a crucial role in an athlete's routine, as it aids in repairing and rebuilding the body after strenuous physical activity. Developing regular sleep habits, such as adhering to a consistent sleep schedule and establishing a sleep-conducive environment, is essential for athletes.

So, how much sleep is good for athletes according to sports medicine? Ideally, between 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night is vital. Sleep quality can be improved by establishing a relaxing sleep environment, reducing exposure to blue light from electronic devices, avoiding the consumption of caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, and managing stress levels. 

Why Is Sleeping So Important For Athletes? 

Partial sleep deprivation can adversely affect an athlete's performance, particularly for college student-athletes and elite athletes. Apart from providing the same therapeutic benefits that non-athletes derive from sleep, athletes enjoy higher cognitive performance when they satisfy the required sleep duration and quality.

One critical advantage of sleep for athletes is that it provides the heart with rest and enables cells and tissues to recover. Physical exertion stresses an athlete's muscles and other tissues, causing damage. During sleep, the body can repair and regenerate these tissues, leading to faster recovery and improved sports performance. 

The Role Of Sleep Hygiene In Optimizing Athletic Performance

As an athlete progresses through various stages of sleep, the resulting changes in heart rate and breathing patterns throughout the night can help promote cardiovascular health, which is especially crucial for athletic training. 

Another critical benefit of sleep for athletes is that it can assist in the prevention of illness or aid in recovery from it. While sleeping, the body produces cytokines, hormones that assist the immune system in fighting infections. 

Sleep-deprived athletes may be more prone to illness and require more time to recover from injuries. Adequate sleep is, therefore, essential for maintaining optimal immune function and keeping athletes healthy and injury-free. 

To optimize the benefits of sleep for athletes, focusing on sleep hygiene, including the quality and sleep quantity is crucial. This entails following consistent sleep schedules, establishing a comfortable sleep environment, limiting exposure to blue light from electronic devices, and reducing stress levels. 

Getting enough sleep can help athletes stay focused, make better decisions, and react more quickly, all of which can give them a competitive edge. It is important to note that not all sleep is created equal. To receive the full benefits of sleep, athletes should aim to get enough deep sleep and REM sleep, the most vital sleep stages. 

Deep sleep is vital for athletes because, during this stage, the body produces human growth hormone (HGH), which plays a crucial role in tissue repair and muscle growth. REM sleep, on the other hand, is essential for memory consolidation and cognitive function.

How Does Sleep Impact The Brain? 

Sleep plays a vital role in memory consolidation, learning, and cognitive processing, making it a critical component of an athlete's overall performance and well-being. Athletes who prioritize sleep hygiene, maintain a regular sleep schedule, and avoid sleep medication can reap the full benefits of quality nighttime sleep.

During sleep, the brain processes and consolidates new information, allowing athletes to retain and use newly acquired skills in the future. With enough sleep, the pathways in the brain that facilitate learning and memory consolidation can be formed and maintained. 

Why Should Athletes Prioritize Sleep Hygiene? 

Maintaining a regular sleep pattern is also crucial for athletes. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps regulate the body's internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up feeling rested. Athletes who prioritize a regular sleep schedule may perform better and feel more alert or energized throughout the day. 

Sleep hygiene is another essential aspect of quality sleep. This refers to the habits and practices that reduce sleep loss, such as avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, creating a relaxing sleep environment, and avoiding electronics in the bedroom. 

Athletes who prioritize sleep hygiene may fall asleep more quickly and experience more restful sleep. 

Sleep and Mental Health

Sleep medicine can disrupt the natural sleep pattern, making it harder to achieve restful and restorative sleep. While sleep medication may be necessary for certain circumstances, athletes should avoid relying on it as a long-term solution. Instead, they should prioritize healthy sleep habits and seek medical guidance for underlying sleep disorders. 

In addition to physical performance, sleep is also essential for maintaining mental health. Quality sleep is associated with improved overall mood, preventing irritability, and decreasing the risk of developing mental health issues such as depression. 

How Does Lack Of Sleep Affect An Athlete's Performance?

Sleep can reduce an individual's ability to react quickly, make sound decisions, and increase the risk of anxiety and depression. Additionally, it can lead to an increased risk of medical conditions such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. 

The National Sleep Foundation believes sleep deprivation can decrease sprint times in male team-sport athletes. Similarly, male and female tennis players who suffer from sleep deprivation experience a significant reduction in serve accuracy compared to those who don’t have restricted sleep. 

Other adverse effects of sleep deprivation in elite athletes include:

  • Quicker exhaustion.
  • Decreased reaction time.
  • Difficulty in learning and decision-making.
  • Increased risk of injury.
  • A higher risk of illness or immunosuppression.

Sleep recommendations vary depending on age, but most adults need about 7-8 hours of sleep every night to function optimally. Athletes who prioritize quality sleep and avoid poor sleep habits are likely to perform better and avoid the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.

How Is Sleep Different For Athletes? 

Research has consistently demonstrated that sleep is crucial to athletic performance and recovery. Elite athletes are advised to prioritize sleep with the same emphasis as their training and diet. In contrast, moderate exercisers may require less sleep than elite performers, and standard sleep guidelines suit them. 

Athletes can benefit from sleep extension or getting more sleep, which has been shown to improve their performance and recovery. Additionally, napping after insufficient sleep can be beneficial but may not be appropriate for individuals with insomnia. Athletes should prioritize additional sleep before significant events such as traveling, heavy competitions, or during illness or injury.

For some athletes, waking up early negatively impacts their performance more than staying late. A study of judo athletes revealed that sleep deprivation in the early morning reduced muscle strength and power the following day. In such cases, consulting with a coach to determine an appropriate training and competition schedule that aligns with an athlete's sleep needs is recommended. 

Some Tips And Tricks For Sleeping

Here are some simple techniques for extended sleep and improved exercise performance.

1. Avoid Over Training

Athletes should avoid overtraining and maintain a consistent training schedule to avoid exhaustion They should also schedule training and competitions at appropriate times of the day to avoid disrupting their sleep patterns. Napping can effectively improve performance, but athletes should keep them brief and avoid napping after 3 p.m. 

2. Reduce Stress

Reducing stressors is another critical component of sleep hygiene for athletes. Mental stressors can affect sleep quality and overall performance, so athletes should prioritize stress management strategies such as meditation and relaxation techniques. 

Jet lag can negatively impact athletes' performance by disrupting their circadian rhythm, leading to fatigue and reduced physical or mental function. To combat these effects, athletes should prepare for travel by adjusting their sleep schedule to match the time of their destination. 

3. Staying Hydrated

It is also important to prioritize getting enough sleep before and during travel to create a comfortable sleep environment. Staying hydrated and adjusting meal times to match the destination time zone will help the body adjust more quickly in such instances. 

These strategies can help athletes minimize the harmful effects of jet lag and perform at their best when competing in different time zones. In addition to the aforementioned sleep hygiene practices, athletes should also focus on staying hydrated as a part of their sleep routine. Proper hydration not only helps in regulating body temperature and promoting muscle recovery but also improves sleep quality. 

Athletes can consult with a sports med specialist or a sleep med expert to determine the appropriate amount of hydration required for their body and the best time to consume fluids to prevent interruptions in their sleep. By prioritizing hydration along with other sleep hygiene practices, athletes can achieve the recommended amount of sleep to improve their athletic performance.

4. Proper Nutrition 

Sleep should be prioritized alongside nutrition and exercise in an athlete's training regimen. Coaches and trainers should be aware of the importance of sleep and work with athletes to develop strategies such as establishing a sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, and ensuring a comfortable sleep environment.

In addition to the standard sleep hygiene practices, athletes should pay close attention to their nutrition to improve their weight lifting performance and glucose metabolism, which can ultimately lead to increased sleep quality. Consuming a balanced diet that includes sufficient carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats can provide the necessary nutrients to support muscle growth and repair, which can enhance athletic performance and facilitate better sleep. 

Moreover, athletes should avoid consuming heavy meals close to bedtime and opt for lighter, protein-rich snacks instead. This can prevent discomfort during sleep and promote a more restful night's sleep, resulting in improved athletic performance the following day.

5. Restricting The Use Of Electronic Devices

Athletes should be mindful of using electronic devices before bedtime, as the blue light emitted by these devices can interfere with sleep. The blue light tricks the brain into thinking it is day time, which makes it harder to fall asleep.


Sleep is crucial for athletic performance, and its impact cannot be overstated. The relationship between sleep and athletic performance is complex, with the quality and duration of sleep playing a significant role in determining an athlete's ability to perform at their best.

Research has shown that inadequate sleep can lead to decreased reaction times, impaired decision-making, and reduced physical performance. Additionally, disturbed sleep can harm an athlete's mood, motivation, and overall well-being, which can further affect their performance. 

On the other hand, getting enough quality sleep can lead to improved physical performance, increased reaction times, and better decision-making abilities. Adequate sleep can help athletes recover from injuries and reduce the risk of getting injured in the first place. So, it’s essential athletes prioritize sleep as part of their training regimen, just as they prioritize nutrition and exercise.