The Importance of Sleep for the Athlete

Posted 5/2/2016 in Physical Therapy Corner | 2186 view(s) | 0 comment(s)

The Importance of Sleep for the Athlete


Michi Mennecke, MPT

Performing Arts Medicine Outreach


Want to be more successful in your sport?  Make sure you are getting enough sleep!  According to ESPN, sleep is the new ‘magic pill’ for athletes.

Research shows that athletes that do not get enough sleep will suffer a decline in performance.  It is understandably difficult to get enough sleep when preparing for any type of competition when travel may be involved.  This can be from anxiety about the competition or possibly from not being able to sleep in your own bed.  When looking at flexibility, endurance and quick reaction time, this lack of sleep, can unfortunately show in your performance.

Studies show:

-That athletes without sleep deprivation are stronger and possess greater cardio power.   Restricting sleep to less than six hours per night for four or more consecutive nights has been shown to impair cognitive performance and mood, disturb glucose metabolism, appetite regulation and immune function.  Adults should obtain eight hours of sleep per night to prevent performance deficits. (Belenky, Spiegel, Krueger, Van Dongen)   Adolescent athletes on the other hand need to be sleeping nine to ten hours per night.

- Consistent sleep is key.  Studies show sleep patterns going back weeks, months and years prior to Olympic events can make an impact on performance- it is not just about the amount of sleep the night before the event.

-Recovery is one of the biggest factors for athletic success-if you recover faster, you can train again sooner and make gains faster.  For exercise and recovery, sleep becomes extremely important because the body secretes growth hormone while you sleep; growth hormone helps repair muscle and soft tissue, as well as breaking down fat.  Sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), decreased activity of human growth hormone (which is active during tissue repair), and decreased glycogen synthesis.  Other studies link sleep deprivation with decreased aerobic endurance and increased ratings of perceived exertion.


What can you do as a coach/parent/individual to optimize training for yourself and/or your athlete?

-Sleep is the foundation of athletic performance- get some!

-Develop and maintain good sleeping habits and routines in off-season, pre-season and throughout the season.

-Never compromise sleep for training.

-Establish the importance of sleep early in the athlete’s career and get professional help, if needed.


Why can sleep deprivation make me gain weight/increase stress levels?

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people ate an average of nearly 300 fewer calories per day when they were well rested.  It has been discovered that a part of the brain that controls sleep also plays a role in appetite and metabolism.  With decreased amount of sleep, your body makes more gherkin and less leptin.  Ghrekin is a hunger hormone and leptin is a hormone that tells you when you are full.  Sleep allows your mind and body to rest giving you more energy and a positive outlook.  This ultimately decreases and manages stress. (Rapoport)  Athletes and non-athletes who slept seven to nine hours a night also had fewer symptoms of depression.


How can you improve your sleep hygiene to maximize sleep?

-Your bedroom should be cool, dark and quiet.  Eye masks and ear plugs work!  Studies show that sleeping in low light is important.  You need the hormone melatonin to sleep; melatonin is only released under low-light conditions.  It needs to be cool in your room because your body temperature tracks your circadian rhythm.  As night begins, your body temperature falls and reaches a minimum right after you go to bed.  Sixty-five degrees is an ideal sleep temperature; use extra blankets if needed.

-Stop hitting the snooze button-this button is not good for keeping your internal circadian clock strong.  Your brain needs to know when it should sleep and when it should wake up.

-Avoid watching TV in bed or falling asleep with TV on. 

-Stop using the computer in bed.

-Avoid caffeine consumption 4-5 hours prior to sleep.

-Do not drink too much before going to bed to avoid waking up in the middle of the night for bathroom breaks.

-Studies show napping can be useful; however, naps should be kept to less than one hour and not too close to bedtime to avoid interfering with sleep.

-Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day.

-Use sleep medications sparingly, if at all.

-Take a warm bath before bed time.

-Drink chamomile or peppermint tea to relax and prepare for sleep.

-Hours slept before twelve at night are proven to be more effective than those slept after.


So, what can you learn from this?

-Sleep is essential for athletes-preparing, recovering, training and competing.

-Sleep deprivation is more noticeable in sub-maximal, prolonged exercise than short bursts of energy output.

-Extra sleep and napping can be an effective method of enhancing performance in athletes.

Athletes need to improve sleep patterns to optimize athletic performance.


So remember….optimal sleep will lead to enhanced overall performance.


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