Why sleep is so important for athletes

In Articlesby Christopher RadfordLeave a Comment

Following the Christmas and New Year holidays and whilst we are out enjoying the sun, most amateur and elite athletes alike are probably dreading the return of pre-season training. Especially, if you have taken some time off competitive or intense training and decided to "relax" or get yourself some much-deserved "rest and relaxation". However, in our attempts to socialise, celebrate and unwind we usually completely forget to actually rest and relax, neglecting on of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal; SLEEP.

Sleep is a necessity. Humans cannot function, maintain health or develop without it. In fact, the longer we spend without sleep; the greater the drive is for our brain to send us to slumber town. This is because sleep is an ACTIVE PROCESS that initiates and facilitates a range of physiological and cognitive processes that often go un-noticed, until you are no longer sleeping.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 7-9 hours of sleep per night for healthy adults, however they strongly recommend avoiding getting less than 6 hours a night. Not getting enough sleep doesn't just make you feel a bit tired, slow or 'off'. Lost sleep impacts mood states and can make you irritable,  slows reaction times, can reduce the release of hormones that assist in protein synthesis and muscle recovery, make it harder to learn during the day, and increases your risk of suffering from the common cold. All of which, are important for athletes as they may limit your ability to train at sufficient intensities to improve, recover after training or competition, impair concentration and decision making during competition, and it may limit your ability to even be available for training and matches. No athletes like being left-out.

COACH TIP: If athletes talk about something or mention something to you, it is usually important to them and their performance. A lot of athletes say they want to "get faster/stronger" or they need to "improve my kicking". So when an athlete mentions that they "slept like crap" or "couldn't get to sleep last night", it tells me as a coach that I need to listen, because this is important.

Until recently, most of what we know about sleep has been based on anecdotal information and the assumption that if less sleep is bad, then more sleep must be good. Luckily, we now have some evidence indicating that more sleep can be beneficial for a range of factors, crucial for athlete's performance and recovery. It is important, however, to consider that not everyone can afford to spend longer in bed overnight due to training and work requirements, therefore some of these results have actually come from using an additional nap during the afternoon.

More sleep improves:

- Sprint performance

- Physical fatigue resistance

- Shooting (basketball) and serve (tennis) accuracy

- Blood-based markers of recovery

- Feelings of stress

- Perceived effort

- Energy levels/reduced sleepiness

But, is more sleep always possible and feasible? Should we focus on maximising the quality of the sleep we can get, and focus on getting ENOUGH sleep instead of MORE sleep? Sleep quality or “sleep hygiene” is something we can encourage all athlete’s to implement by improving the environment in which they sleep. In short, sleep hygiene consists of six simple things we can do based on creating a better ENVIRONMENT by the development of a better sleep ROUTINE through changes in our BEHAVIOUR. More information can be found at https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au

  • Dim the lights - About 60min prior to bed, dim the lights and shift devices to night-mode, install heavy curtains to prevent light coming in
  • Make the bedroom a place to rest - Wall colours, decorations, TV's and clutter can make the room an unpleasant place to rest
  • Cool room - try to have the room between 19-21 degrees and see what combination of temperature and clothing suits you to stay comfortable.
  • Comfortable bedding - Take care when selecting pillows, mattresses and bedding to ensure it provides support and comfort
  • Reduce noise - Keep your room free of noisy items, and don't sleep with the TV or radio on that can spike in volumes. Quiet relaxing music can help.
  • Familiar/ Non-harsh scents - soothing scents that are relaxing and don't irritate your breathing.

Sleep for athletes

COACH TIP: Creating behaviour change in athletes is hard work and often fails because of a lack of effort and attention on the part of the coach or sport scientist. In a recent editorial, Dr Shona Halson (Senior Recovery Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport) eludes to just how hard it is to create sustainable change and suggests: - "While our job as sport scientists may always have elements of education, monitoring, and research, we should never underestimate the value of understanding how to best modify behavior in athletes. With encouragement, support, and motivation for change in an evidence-based environment, we just might provide the most beneficial platform for athlete success."

So, if you are an athlete or coach; sleep is important. You can improve your performance recovery by avoiding consistent loss of sleep (<6 hours), increasing the amount of sleep you get (no more than 10 hours), or maximising the quality and restfulness of the sleep you get. There is no magic number for sleep duration, although the recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation of 7-9 hours are pretty spot-on. A good sleep routine is the key as well, no point getting 8 hours Monday to Friday and then only 5 hours sleep over the weekend. 

Find what works for you, develop a routine and sleep your way to better performance!

Author: Nathan Pitchford  - B.Ex.Sci (Hons), PHD Candidate, MHPS, ESSA AEP 


1. National Sleep Foundation, Sleep needs across the lifespan. http://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/files/pdfs/Sleep-Needs-Across-Lifespan.pdf

2. Arnal, P.J., et al., Sleep Extension before Sleep Loss: Effects on Performance and Neuromuscular Function. Medicine And Science In Sports And Exercise, 2016.

3. Mah, C.D., et al., The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep, 2011. 34(7): p. 943-950.

4. Schwartz, J. and R.D. Simon, Sleep extension improves serving accuracy: A study with college varsity tennis players. Physiology & behavior, 2015. 151: p. 541-544.

5. Spiegel, K., R. Leproult, and E. Van Cauter, Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet, 1999. 354(9188): p. 1435-1439.

6. Halson, S.L. and M. Lastella, Amazing Athletes With Ordinary Habits: Why Is Changing Behavior So Difficult? 2017, Human Kinetics Champaign, Illinois, USA.


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