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Sleep Health

How Does Sleep Affect Athletic Performance?

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    Last Updated
    September 21, 2022
    min read

    The differences between winning and losing are fractional for elite athletes, so they look carefully at every possible method to enhance performance. What has emerged from countless studies and practices is something we all know instinctively: proper sleep is absolutely essential.

    Whether you are an athlete or simply looking to perform daily tasks better, the following information proves why you should take a long, hard look at your bed and how you sleep.

    Sleep Like A Real Athlete Graph

    Why Sleep Is Important For Athletes

    For athletes and non-athletes alike, getting quality sleep is critical for both your brain and your body. Whoever said “you snooze, you lose” had it wrong all along – you need optimal sleep to secure medals and reach your fitness goals. 

    Mentally, quality sleep improves cognitive performance, helps stabilize your mood, and keeps you alert. Physically, getting adequate sleep time has many positive effects on physical health. The benefits to physiological functions include increased metabolism, accelerated tissue repair, and boosted immune functions.

    Having the right mattress can make all the difference when it comes to sleeping at night.  Purple has a GelFlex Grid Technology that cushions and supports you while dissipating body heat.

    How Sleep Affects Athletes

    Research shows that full and partial sleep deprivation have negative effects on athletes, while their physical performance and cognitive function can improve through sleep extension. 

    Mental Health

    Sports are more than just pure physical performance. Mental toughness, emotional control, decision-making, and self-confidence are important factors in sports performance. 

    “It sounds simple,” ten-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno said. “But getting the proper rest really does increase my confidence and abilities on and off the track.”

    Loss of sleep increases stress levels and harms mental health. Studies have found that cognitive functions including reaction time and decision-making significantly declined in people who suffer from a prolonged period of inadequate sleep. Lack of sleep can also cause or exacerbate mood swings, anxiety, depression, and paranoia.

    Unfortunately, this is a two-way street: mental health issues can also cause a decline in the quality of sleep, as stress and anxiety make it harder to fall and stay asleep. This can create a vicious cycle where continuous stress and sleep deprivation feed into each other and progressively worsen.

    Athletic Performance

    Elite performers know that getting an adequate amount of quality sleep gives them competitive advantages that make the difference out on the field.

    Two-time Olympic gold hockey player Rebecca Johnson once stated, “When in competition or heavy training, sleep is the most important factor in achieving my optimal athletic performance.”

    There is a link between lack of sleep in athletes and poor game performance, due to the cumulative negative effects this can have on cognitive performance, physical health, reaction time, and other areas related to sports. 

    On the other hand, increased quantity and quality of sleep have been associated with many benefits to performance factors like improved accuracy, decision-making, stamina, and strength.

    Accuracy And Reaction Time

    Studies show that sleep deprivation has an adverse impact on accuracy and reaction time in a variety of sports. 

    Tennis serve accuracy was found to have decreased by as much as 53% after sleep deprivation in tennis players of both sexes, in comparison to their sports performance without a night of sleep restriction. 

    Conversely, getting more sleep appears to boost reaction time and athletic precision. A study found that collegiate athletes on varsity tennis teams who had at least nine hours of sleep showed an improvement in serve accuracy from 36% to 42% after a period of sleep extension.

    Data gathered from college varsity basketball players showed that getting a sleep extension of at least 10 hours a night resulted in an improvement in basketball shooting accuracy of approximately 9% for both free throws and three-pointers.

    Swimmers of both sexes also showed performance improvements after a 10-hour period of sleep extension, with faster times in swim sprints, turns, and diving off the block.

    Endurance And Power

    The impact of sleep restriction on endurance and power is severely detrimental. Researchers found that one sleepless night drastically reduced endurance performance on treadmills, with the participants completing shorter distances compared to people who received healthy sleep.

    While a single night of sleep restriction may not lead to an immediate decrease in power, prolonged sleep deprivation for 36 hours was shown to decrease anaerobic power for cyclists. Research also measured decreased submaximal strength and maximum bench and leg presses for weightlifters who suffered from insufficient sleep.

    Sleep deprivation can have a more pronounced negative impact on your strength depending on its timing. Waking up too early was found to result in decreased power and muscle strength the next day for judo athletes.

    Physical Health

    Sleep deprivation has been found to increase vulnerability to sicknesses, particularly upper respiratory infections like the common cold. 

    When you’re asleep, your immune system releases infection-fighting substances like antibodies and certain protective cytokines. Less time in bed getting quality sleep means that the body produces fewer of these substances, leaving you more prone to sickness.

    Long-term chronic lack of sleep also increases the risk of developing chronic health issues such as joint and back pain, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart disease.


    Studies have found a link between sleep deprivation and an increased risk of injuries and susceptibility to illness. Research on adolescent athletes in middle school and high school found that those who slept less than 8 hours per night had increased sports injury reports by 70%, compared to those who had a higher sleep duration.

    This may be attributed to the slower reaction time and impaired cognitive function caused by sleep deprivation, which renders them less able to foresee and avoid accidents compared to their well-rested counterparts.

    Lack of sleep also boosts the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines that hinder muscle recovery and tissue repair. This prolongs recovery periods for muscle fatigue and injuries.

    How Is Sleep Different For Athletes?

    In the same way that sports players usually need more calories, athletes usually need more sleep than the average person. 

    The amount of sleep you need is affected by how much energy you exert. As athletes subject their bodies to more stress and effort in training and sports competitions, this means that they typically need more sleep than non-athletes to recover.

    Despite needing more sleep than average, elite athletes reportedly get fewer hours of sleep and are more likely to suffer from disturbed sleep cycles than non-athletes. There are multiple possible reasons for sleep deprivation in athletes, including the following:

    • Training and competition schedules: Competitive athletes may have to adjust their sleep cycles to accommodate training for and traveling to events, resulting in poor sleep habits and less consistent sleep. Where travel and game times involve changes in time zones, jet lag can also cause daytime sleepiness and prevent professional athletes from getting nighttime sleep.
    • Disrupted sleeping environment: Traveling to athletic competitions usually means staying in unfamiliar sleeping quarters. A bad mattress or a noisy neighbor in the hotel room next door can result in a sleepless night.
    • Pre-competition anxiety: Stress has been found to make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. Getting jitters the day before a big match can result in a sleepless night and poor performance at the event the next day.
    • Blue light emissions: Elite athletes not only have to compete in their chosen sport, but many of them also have to develop a public persona to secure endorsement contracts. Many professional athletes are now active on social media and use their gadgets at all hours of the day to communicate with fans, but their blue light screen emissions can disrupt the body’s melatonin production and negatively impact sleep time.

    Can Sleep Improve Your Athletic Performance?

    Getting longer quality sleep equals better athletic performance. Studies have demonstrated multiple positive effects of sleep extension, or prolonging sleep beyond the average rest time, including the following:

    • Improved reaction times, split-second decision-making, short-term memory, and alertness;
    • Faster sprint times, better shooting and serving accuracy, and longer stamina; and
    • Decreased fatigue levels and injury rates.

    How Much Sleep Do Athletes Need?

    Studies show that athletes need 7-9 hours of sleep per night on average. However, this is simply the baseline to sleep extension, and the actual hours per night needed can vary between individual athletes. For example, two-time World Champion and Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn Skier has stated that she tries to sleep at least 10 hours at night, in addition to taking naps every day.

    Continuous sleep at night would be best, but there are benefits in sleep extension via napping, especially after insufficient nightly sleep time. A quick 20-30 minute afternoon nap has been found to result in a 100% improvement in alertness. 

    Just make sure not to overdo the extra sleep, as prolonged napping can disrupt the duration of sleep cycles at night.

    Signs Of Sleep Deprivation In Athletes

    When you’ve got your head in the game, it might be hard to tell whether or not you’re suffering from sleep loss. Here are a few indicators that you need to recharge your energy levels:

    • Daytime sleepiness: Not getting enough hours of sleep per night commonly results in feeling drowsy during daylight hours. This can also result in more frequent and longer naps during the day, which further decreases nocturnal sleep duration.
    • Getting tired faster: Does your normal training suddenly feel a lot more draining? Lack of sleep is linked to athletes becoming more exhausted faster and experiencing increased levels of fatigue. 
    • Mood disturbances: Studies show that insufficient sleep is connected to negative emotions like frustration, anger, irritability, and sadness. If you’re feeling snappier than usual, you may need a quick afternoon nap to reset your mood to its baseline.
    • Slower decision-making: Research has established a link between sleep deprivation and impaired executive function, which affects decision-making. Lack of sleep causes confusion, increases cognitive lapses, and slows reaction time, so it’s harder to make quick choices.

    Sleep Hygiene Tips For Athletes

    Many athletes are guilty of maladaptive sleep practices that impair their sleep and affect their game performance. To sleep like a champion, here are a few healthy sleep hygiene recommendations:

    • Establish a regular bedtime routine: As much as possible, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. This includes weekends, holidays, and days you don’t have training or athletic competitions scheduled. Avoid spending time in bed when you’re not sleeping.
    • Fix your sleeping area: Sleep in a dark, cool, and quiet environment, free from distractions and strong stimuli.
    • Adjust your training schedule: Talk to your coach about cutting out late evening practices or at least adjusting their severity. It’s better to avoid high-intensity exercise right before bedtime. Also, make sure that your morning training sessions don’t result in waking up too early, as late-cycle sleep deprivation has adverse effects on strength and power.
    • Switch off your screens: Put away your electronic gadgets at least two hours before bedtime, as the blue light emissions can disrupt your circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall asleep.
    • Check your mattress: Five-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady knows how crucial the right mattress is to sleep quality: “A good mattress is important wherever I go, as I’m always trying to find something that’s comfortable and allows me to sleep as well as I possibly can.” Make sure to get one that’s comfortable and suits your needs. 

    Frequently Asked Questions On How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance

    Are six hours of sleep enough for athletes?

    The recommended number of hours of sleep for athletes ranges from 7-9 hours per night. This may vary depending on individual needs.

    Do athletes need more sleep?

    Athletes generally need more sleep than the average person. This is due to higher levels of exertion compared to sedentary people – the more worn out you are, the more sleep you need to recover.

    Does exercise affect sleep?

    Getting moderate to vigorous regular exercise can increase sleep quality by making it easier to fall and stay asleep. However, intense workouts too close to bedtime can raise cortisol levels, which prevents sleep. If you’re working out in the evening, make sure your training program isn’t too heavy.


    The essential benefits of sleep


    -Thornton, Lindsay. “Elite Athletes and Sleep: How Much are they Getting? What Happens when they Don’t Get Enough? Why Short Term Sleep Extension might be a Performance Enhancement Strategy.” Olympic Coach May 2016, Volume 27, Issue 1.

    - much sleep do athletes need?




    -Thornton, Lindsay. “Elite Athletes and Sleep: How Much are they Getting? What Happens when they Don’t Get Enough? Why Short Term Sleep Extension might be a Performance Enhancement Strategy.” Olympic Coach May 2016, Volume 27, Issue 1.


    Good sleep equals better performance


    -Maddox, W. Todd, et al. “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Information-Integration Categorization Performance,” Sleep 2009, Volume 32, Issue 11.

    -Dinges, David F., et al. “Cumulative Sleepiness, Mood Disturbance, and Psychomotor Vigilance Performance Decrements During a Week of Sleep Restricted to 4-5 Hours per Night,” Sleep 1997, Volume 20, Issue 4.

    - Dongen, Hans P.A., et al. “The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness: Dose-Response Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and Sleep Physiology From Chronic Sleep Restriction and Total Sleep Deprivation,” Sleep 2003, Volume 26, Issue 2.

    -Thornton, Lindsay. “Elite Athletes and Sleep: How Much are they Getting? What Happens when they Don’t Get Enough? Why Short Term Sleep Extension might be a Performance Enhancement Strategy.” Olympic Coach May 2016, Volume 27, Issue 1.


    Champions love to sleep


    - better sleep habits




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