How Sleep Affects
Athletic Performance

Mary the AuthorMary Sweeney RN, BSN, CEN, ONN-CG
Updated: March 1, 2020

Do Athletes Focus on Sleep?

If you are an avid sports fan or a budding athlete, chances are you’ve wondered about the lifestyle and habits of the elite athletes you watch. Elite athletes may have strict practice schedules and structured diet and daily routines, all to ensure that they are performing at the highest level possible. But, do these routines ever focus on sleep? Does sleep affect athletic performance? Let’s find out.

Exercise and the Sleep Cycle

When you initially consider the subject of exercise and sleep, it may not seem like the two go hand in hand – but they do. Any type of exercise that gets your heart pumping will prompt your body to produce a chemical called an endorphin. Endorphins give you energy and make you feel awake, and the more you exercise, the more you produce. For this reason, it’s recommended that you exercise at least 1-2 hours before going to bed, so that your mind and body have a chance to cool down.

Exercise also increases the amount of restorative sleep you get, known as stage 3 of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. Let’s review the sleep cycle to get a better understanding:

There are two types of sleep, non-REM (NREM) and REM sleep. These types can further be broken down into the following stages:

Stage 1: This first stage of NREM sleep is very light, lasting only a few minutes or so. Here, your body is preparing to fall into a deeper sleep, your eye movements slow down, and your brain begins producing alpha and theta waves. During this stage, you can be awoken easily since you’re only lightly sleeping.

Stage 2: During this NREM stage, you’re lightly sleeping but your heart rate slows down, your muscles relax significantly and your body temperature decreases slightly. Eye movements will slow down during this stage, and your brain waves slow down with occasional increases in activity. 

Stage 3: This NREM stage is restorative sleep, the kind that makes you feel refreshed. If someone were to wake you up during this stage, you would likely feel disoriented for a few minutes before realizing your surroundings. Our eye movements slow down or stop, and it’s very difficult to wake us up. This stage is an important one – it’s where your body starts repairing muscle, strengthening your immune system, and other vital processes. This stage is what researchers believe can most be affected by moderate amounts of aerobic exercise.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: During REM sleep, our eye movement increase dramatically, like the name suggests. REM sleep is the stage where dreaming happens, and researchers think that the rapid eye movements may be related to the dreaming that you’re doing. During this stage, most of your muscles are in a paralyzed state, to keep you from acting out your dreams.

Stage 3 of NREM sleep and REM sleep are particularly important when it comes to mental focus and clarity, as well as physical stamina. As you can imagine, the more you get, the better you’ll perform.

Sleep and Athletic Performance

Health professionals will tell you that if you get at least 6-8 hours of sleep per night, you are more likely to have improved athletic performance, concentration ability, and improved mood. If you’re an athlete, you know the importance of having those three things at optimum levels! While there isn’t a whole lot of research that examines the relationship of sleep and athletic performance, there is evidence that a poor night’s sleep may cause slight deficits in motor function, but muscular strength and endurance are not affected. This means you might not be as accurate with that throw to third base as you would be after a good night’s sleep, but you’ll be able to get the ball somewhere in that general vicinity.

Athletes may find that it’s difficult to always get a good night’s sleep, and that’s not uncommon. Often, games and practices happen at night, and players are often performing at their optimum levels at those times. Games may end late and players may need to be up early, limiting the amount of time they have to get a good night’s rest. While many of these instances are unavoidable, athletes can still strive for eight hours of sleep per night on off days. Furthermore, athletes in those situations may find napping helpful. 

Sleep Habits of Elite Athletes

To give you an idea of what the sleep habits are of some of the world’s elite athletes, let’s take a look at some examples:

LeBron James: This basketball superstar reports getting 12 hours of sleep per night, compared to the seven hours per night that the average American gets. 

Tiger Woods: According to ESPN, Tiger Woods reported only getting five to six hours of sleep per night during portions of his career. Could this fact be what’s responsible for his period of declining performance? Absolutely, maybe.

Usain Bolt: This Olympic champion runner reported getting eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Did it improve his performance? Ask his six Olympic gold medals in sprinting.

Kevin Durant: This basketball MVP gets eight hours of sleep each night and wakes up early to start his workout routines. According to Huffington Post, Kevin says “Every day is a new chance to challenge myself and push my training to the next level, but I can only do that if I keep my energy up. Sleep is an important part of that.”

For more examples of elite athletes’ sleep routines, see this comprehensive article on Huffington post here.

Tips to Get Better Sleep

If you’re ready to rest up and get the good night’s sleep you need, here are some helpful tips:

Check your thermostat. Research has shown that you get your best sleep when the room temperature is somewhere between 65 and 69 degrees Fahrenheit. Your body temperature rises and falls during your sleep cycle, and when your temperature is higher, it signals to your body that it’s time to wake up. Prevent that during the night by wearing cool pajamas and setting your thermostat at a comfortable temperature.

Avoid caffeine. Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, meaning that it takes six hours for your body to metabolize half the amount of caffeine you have consumed. This means that if you drink a cup of coffee at 8:00pm, half of that caffeine will still be in your body at 2:00am. Caffeine raises your heart rate, makes you more alert, and can make you feel jittery. All of those effects are definitely not conducive to a good night’s sleep! Be sure to avoid energy drinks, coffee, sodas, chocolate, or anything else that may contain caffeine for at least six hours before bed.

Put your phone down. Research has shown that the blue light emitted from electronic devices can interfere with melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone that your body produces that lets you know when it’s time to go to bed. Production increases when it’s dark outside, and artificial light can prevent your body from producing the amount it needs for you to fall and stay asleep. Try to turn the TV off and put your devices down at least 30 minutes to an hour before you go to bed. If you feel like you might be tempted to grab your phone in the middle of the night, store it in another room or somewhere you’ll have to walk to in order to look at it.

Take a warm bath or shower. Taking a warm bath or shower at least an hour before bed can calm your mind, relax your muscles, and promote a good night’s sleep. Be sure it’s not too hot though, you don’t want to raise your body temperature too much right before bed.

Read a book. Instead of TV or a phone, pick up a book. This will give you a chance to focus on something calming and will relax your mind. 

Meditate. If reading isn’t your jam, consider turning on some soft music or a meditation app. Turn off the lights, close your eyes, and focus on the soft sounds to promote relaxation.

Take a nap. If you’re one of those athletes that just doesn’t have the schedule to allow for a good night’s sleep, consider taking a nap. Naps should be no longer than 20 minutes – you don’t want to get so far into a sleep cycle that you end up feeling groggy.

Create an optimal sleeping environment. Melatonin production increases when it’s dark, so be sure your sleeping environment is free of natural and artificial light when it’s time to go to sleep. Blackout curtains are often helpful, especially if you live in an urban environment or if you’re a shift worker who needs to sleep during the day.

For more information about sleep and its effects on athletic performance, see the below resources that were used in the creation of this guide.

References and Continued Reading