How Sleep Impacts Sports Performance & Recovery
Sleep is essential to anyone’s overall health. However, studies suggest sleep can be a game-changer for athletes in particular. Most people know that getting enough sleep and getting quality sleep can lead to happier, healthier lives. The recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7-8 hours a night. But athletes, and those who train daily, typically need 9-10 hours a night. During these hours of sleep, the body can recover, retain memories and boost immunity. Of course, these are all necessary aspects of performance. Over the last couple of decades, studies have solidified the importance of sleep and its effects on athletics. Here are some of the findings:
Sleep improves endurance in sports
While we sleep, our heart rate decreases. Our body repairs cells and tissues during sleep as well. Both of these aspects promote cardiovascular health (key to endurance) and allow muscles to recover. A Stanford study conducted on men’s basketball players showed that getting 10 hours of sleep improved run times in half-court and full-court sprints. In another study, male and female swimmers who got 10 hours of sleep had faster 15-meter sprints, turn times, and kick strokes.
Sleep improves mental performance
Memory, learning, and decision making are all affected by sleep. Additionally, adequate sleep results in a better mood, less irritability, and decreased risk of depression. For athletes, these mood-boosting, cognitive benefits can prove to be very helpful. For example, athletes learn new skills daily, and sleep helps retain that new information by creating pathways in the brain, allowing these plays and skills to be memorized. We see this in a study done on adolescent male soccer players. The study found a steeper learning curve for the performance of sport-specific tasks after a period of habitual sleep as compared to a period of sleep deprivation.
Sleep and sports accuracy & reaction time
Sleep deprivation decreases reaction time and accuracy. Moreover, sleep extension shows the opposite effect. Several studies illustrate this:
- A single night of 5 hours of sleep in tennis players was associated with decreased serving accuracy of up to 53% compared with after a normal night’s sleep. A 1.6-hour sleep extension was associated with a 36% to 41% increase in serving accuracy.
- In a study of collegiate male basketball players, an increase of objectively measured sleep from 6.6 to 8.5 hours per night over a 5 to 7 week period was associated with a 9% increase in free-throw accuracy and a 9.2% increase in three-point field goal percentage.
- For professional dart throwers, dart-throwing accuracy was found to decrease significantly after a single night of 4 to 5 hours of sleep, compared to after a full night’s sleep.
Sleep decreases the risk of illness & injury
Illness and injury are some of the greatest inhibitors to success for athletes. Research has proven that sleep deficiency leads to a greater risk of illness and injury. In a study of middle and high school athletes, it was found that individuals who got less than 8 hours of sleep per night on average were 70% more likely to report an injury than those who got more than 8 hours of sleep.
While a lack of sleep and increased injuries are correlated, it is unclear why. It could be due to impaired cognitive ability and reaction times and higher levels of fatigue. Additionally, sleep deprivation can make someone more susceptible to the common cold and flu, make recovery slower, and amplify existing illnesses.
How elite athletes are changing their sleep schedules
Many coaches and trainers of professional sports teams realize the effects of travel and busy schedules on their player’s sleep and performance. Some have even consulted the sleep expert, who the NBA deemed "The Sleep Doctor," Charles A. Czeisler, Ph.D., M.D, and Chief of Sleep Medicine Division at Harvard. Teams advised Dr. Czeisler include the Boston Celtics, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Boston Bruins, and the Patriots. They’ve all received tips on when and how much their players should be napping and/or sleeping on tight travel schedules and heavy training days to maximize their performance.
More recently, New York Giants coach Joe Judge changed the team’s travel schedule (which had been in use since 2004). The new schedule allowed for more downtime and rest before training, the game, and flying back. Because the players were in the new time zone the day before the game, it avoided the problem of fighting jet lag during the game. Staying overnight after the game gave the team time to recover and get a good night of sleep before heading back. The players welcomed this change, and it has affected both morale and performance.
Famous quarterback Tom Brady has long touted the importance of a healthy sleep schedule. In his 2017 book, "The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance" Brady mentions that he sticks to a 9 p.m. bedtime and he wakes up at 6 a.m. (for nine hours of sleep). Other aspects of his sleep routine include keeping his bedroom cool to promote deep sleep and not exercising too close to bedtime.
Whether participating in sports as a hobby or as a pro, it is clear that adequate sleep helps any athlete perform at their highest capacity. Along with a workout schedule, scheduling enough restorative sleep should be a priority for anyone wanting to perform well in athletic events.
- Davis, S. (2020, December 7). Giants head coach Joe Judge changed the team’s decade-old travel policy to get players more sleep, and it’s working. Insider. https://www.insider.com/joe-judge-changed-giants-travel-sleep-plan-players-love-it-2020-12
- Foley, L. (2021, January 22). Sleep & Athletic Performance. Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-activity/athletic-performance-and-sleep
- Mah, C. D., Mah, K. E., Kezirian, E. J., & Dement, W. C. (2011). The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Sleep, 34(7), 943–950. https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.1132
- Vitale, K. C., Owens, R., Hopkins, S. R., & Malhotra, A. (2019). Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(08), 535–543. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-0905-3103
- Watson, A. M. (2017). Sleep and Athletic Performance. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 16(6), 413–418. https://doi.org/10.1249/jsr.0000000000000418
- Scipioni, Jade (2021, February 6). A 9 p.m. bedtime and special pajamas: Inside Tom Brady’s sleep routine. CNBC Make It https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/06/-inside-tom-bradys-sleep-routine.html