Impacts of Sleep on Athletic Performance
Sleep is an essential part of everyday life. It serves a vital role in all our bodily processes, impacting both mental and physical functioning. Research suggests sleep affects our capacity to recover from physical stressors such as injury or illness, our ability to learn new tasks and even our emotional state (1). Athletes require sleep to function at an optimal level, but given the demands of athletic performance, rest and recovery are often jeopardized as athletes attempt to manage the physical demands and time pressures of a busy schedule. In this context, athletes often fail to obtain adequate sleep and become sleep deprived, leading to negative outcomes for athletic performance and overall health (2).
The required amount of sleep differs greatly between individuals, but usually sits within the 7 to 9-hour range for athletes (2). Daily variation for the same individual can also occur due to influences such as psychologic and physiologic stress, illness, prior sleep deprivation and situational factors (1). Both quantity and quality of sleep (how effective the body is at achieving deeper levels of sleep) are essential to sleep’s restorative function, and many factors contribute to duration and effectiveness of sleep for student-athletes.
Obstacles to sleep in athletes
Sleep is an important part of recovery, but athletes commonly exhibit a poor ability to self-evaluate the length, quality and need for sleep as part of the recovery equation, causing 42% to be classified as sleep deprived (3). Several barriers impact athletes achieving an adequate amount of sleep.
- Training volume and schedule can cause negative effects on sleep. Early morning or late-night sessions in conjunction with high training loads result in insufficient sleep duration and elevated pre-training fatigue (1).
- Competition periods are associated with heightened physiological and psychological loads, as well as altered moods, stress, and anxiety levels that all undermine sleep quality and quantity (2).
- Traveling for competition can have a direct impact on athletic performance through changes in sleep schedules and disruption of circadian/homeostatic rhythms. Additionally, travel-related stress, jet lag, disorientation and fatigue are associated with impaired performance (4).
- Academic/work conflicts exert additional time pressures that compete with pre-existing athletic demands, particularly among youth and collegiate athletes. Sleep is often sacrificed to accommodate these commitments (1).
Impact of insufficient sleep on athletic performance
Numerous studies examining both individual and team sports show a strong relationship between sleep (quantity and quality) and competition success.
- Endurance performance is inhibited after sleep deprivation, due to decreased pre-exercise muscle glycogen stores and heightened levels of perceived exertion (5).
- Sprint performance is not significantly impacted by sleep deprivation, but athletes report increased fatigue, confusion and mood swings (6).
- Precision/accuracy performance is found to have a strong positive correlation with sleep duration, especially in sports like tennis, golf, and dart throwing. Impaired accuracy and reaction time is associated with sleep deprivation and can be improved through sleep extension (7).
- Cognitive performance and the ability to learn are crucial to both athletic performance and development, and adequate sleep is required to reinforce learned material. Restricted sleep can hinder an athlete’s athletic capacity by impairing new skill acquisition as well as interfering with flexible thinking and decision-making (2).
Influence of sleep on mental and physical health
Sleep is a time of rest and repair for the body’s tissues, allowing for removal of waste products after engaging in physical exertion. The changes in breathing and heart rate associated with sleep also work to promote good cardiovascular health, which is particularly important for athletes.
- Injury risk is negatively correlated with sleep duration, where a reduction in length of sleep significantly heightens the risk for potential injury. A simultaneous increase in training load can make these effects more severe (8).
- Illness and immunosuppression are common in sleep-deprived individuals, with susceptibility to diseases/infections affecting the upper respiratory tract being the most prominent. Competition periods are often associated with greater risk for illness due to the combined factors of perceived stress, anxiety and insufficient sleep duration (9).
- Mental well-being is improved with greater sleep quality and quantity. Increased sleep is associated with less irritability, better overall mood and decreased risk of developing mental health disorders (2).
What can you do as an athlete to improve your sleep?
Sleep is among the body’s most vital biological functions, impacting your ability to develop, learn, perform, function cognitively and maintain a sound state of physical and mental well-being (1). Multiple negative consequences stem from insufficient sleep, making it essential to recognize sleep problems and adhere to recommended guidelines. Prioritizing sleep as an equal element of training to physical activity and nutrition will give you the best chance to achieve optimal sport performance (2).
5 steps towards better sleep:
- Establish a suitable environment for sleep with minimal external distractions
- Avoid overtraining
- Take brief daytime naps as necessary
- Minimize sessions or competitions in the early/late times of day
- Reduce stressors that contribute to poor sleep quality
- Watson AM. Sleep and athletic performance: Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2017;16(6):413-418. doi:10.1249/JSR.0000000000000418
- Bird SP. Sleep, recovery, and athletic performance: a brief review and recommendations. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2013;35(5):43-47. doi:10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182a62e2f
- Brain basics: understanding sleep | national institute of neurological disorders and stroke. Accessed August 4, 2022. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/patient-caregiver-education/brain-basics-understanding-sleep
- Smith RS, Efron B, Mah CD, Malhotra A. The impact of circadian misalignment on athletic performance in professional football players. Sleep. 2013;36(12):1999-2001. doi:10.5665/sleep.3248
- Azboy O, Kaygisiz Z. Effects of sleep deprivation on cardiorespiratory functions of the runners and volleyball players during rest and exercise. Acta Physiologica Hungarica. 2009;96(1):29-36. doi:10.1556/APhysiol.96.2009.1.3
- Taheri M, Arabameri E. The effect of sleep deprivation on choice reaction time and anaerobic power of college student athletes. Asian J Sports Med. 2012;3(1). doi:10.5812/asjsm.34719
- Schwartz J, Simon RD. Sleep extension improves serving accuracy: A study with college varsity tennis players. Physiology & Behavior. 2015;151:541-544. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.08.035
- Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, et al. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics. 2014;34(2):129-133. doi:10.1097/BPO.0000000000000151
- Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MH, Cohen S. Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep. 2015;38(9):1353-1359. doi:10.5665/sleep.4968