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Shut-eye for star performance

Posted by Bethany Nock on Tue, November 6, 2018

We all know that sleep is important.  We also all know that we could probably use more of it.  But, what are the key factors of sleep for athletes? Does an athlete need more sleep than the average person? Do quantity and quality of sleep affect athletic performance? In this article, we explore some references to develop answers to these questions and more.

Here are the top 3 things to know about sleep as an athlete:

1.  Get Enough Sleep

General guidelines suggest that the average person requires 7-9 hours of sleep each night.  According to David Geier, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, SC, as well as Jim Thornton, president of the National Athletic Trainers Association, an athlete may require even more.  

Carrie Mah is a well-known sleep scientist who has researched the affect that sleep extension can have on athletes.  In her 2011 study, The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players, she concludes, “Improvements in specific measures of basketball performance after sleep extension indicate that optimal sleep is likely beneficial in reaching peak athletic performance.”   Making the effort to manage your schedule and get an extra hour or more of sleep can have meaningful and proven impact.

 2. Get Good Quality Sleep

Getting quality sleep is also critical.  Those 9+ hours of sleep should be solid, with no interruptions or awakenings.  To optimize the quality of sleep, athletes should do their best to go to sleep and wake up as close to the same time each day.  This may be challenging during an aggressive travel season but keeping your body on a consistent sleep/wake cycle can help set your internal clock, leading to improved sleep.

Setting a bedtime routine will also help you set yourself up for a quality night’s rest.  Start to calm your body down 20-30 minutes before you plan to sleep.  Calm your mind and muscles with some yoga stretches or light reading.  Refrain from television and cell phone use as the blue light emitted from these and similar devices can trigger your brain to stay awake for longer than you’d like.

Also, make sure your sleeping environment is cool, dark and quiet.  Use blackout curtains.  Lower your thermostat.  Use earplugs or a white noise machine (or app) to reduce or eliminate noise from roommates or outside interruptions.

 3. Allow for your Muscles to Recover

Athletes are straining their muscles every day, oftentimes pushing them to the limit.  This daily impact requires enough sleep to allow the body to repair itself.  The 2017 study, Relationship between sleep and muscle strength among Chinese university students: a cross-sectional study, studied more than 10,000 students regarding the link between their muscle strength and sleep. The study concludes, “Good sleep quality is associated with greater muscle strength, while short sleep duration may be a risk factor for decreased muscle strength in university students.”  Good sleep becomes instrumental in your ability to quickly recover and prepare for the next training session or competition.

As an athlete, there are days when getting even 8 hours of sleep can seem like an insurmountable job. There are so many stressors (not just physical) that can make it difficult to wind down at the end of the day.  There is a significant amount of discipline that you must manage across so many different areas of your life: nutrition, mental health, strength and conditioning, competitive knowledge, race or game logistics, travel, relationships, work/academics… oh, and sleep.

Given the benefits that sleep can provide to the different aspects of your life by improving sports performance, muscle recovery and even mood, it makes sense to prioritize sleep.  

Sometimes it can be difficult to fall asleep after a busy day or a game. How do you make sure to catch enough Z’s? Share your tips and tricks below.


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