Do you feel like you’ve done just about everything to improve your performance, recover faster, or bounce back from a string of injuries? The missing ingredient might be before your very eyes. Maybe all you need to do is close them!
The concept of sleep is as buzzworthy as ever. How much should you get? Should you sleep 4 hours each night like Elon Musk in order to be successful? (Hint: No. And athletes likely need more than double that, every day).
When we sleep, the body does some of its most amazing work, repairing itself from all we put it through, every cell, in every intricate chemical reaction, renovated, rejuvenated, and restocked to take on a new day. Sleep can make the difference in being prepared for your next triathlon, making or missing a shot, staying focused at work and school, preventing injury, and even helping you get the breakthrough you’re looking for in PT. It impacts our learning, recovery, attention, and mood, and while sleep may not be magic, its effects can certainly feel that way. At Adams Sports Medicine, we educate our patients on the importance of sleep in both performance and recovery, because we have experienced first hand, as athletes and clinicians, the impact it has. Taking it seriously is crucial.
What Science Says
Decreases in sleep duration and quality can have significant effects on endurance athletes, including reduced muscle glycogen storage7 and an increase in perceived exertion with activity3. Sleep deprivation is also strongly linked to impaired immune function. If you average less than 7 hours per night, you may actually be 3x more likely to get an upper respiratory infection compared to those sleeping over 8 hours2. Additionally, sleep loss has been found to correlate with decreased inhibitory control and increased perceived stress and depression symptoms6.
In regard to increased sleep, researchers have also observed significant changes in accuracy among ball-sport athletes, including a 40% improvement in serving in college tennis players8, and a 9% increase in free throw shooting percentage in college basketball players4.
How much do you really need?
Adolescents, roughly ages 10-20, need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, while the average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours 1. Since the vast majority of cellular repair and training adaptations take place when we sleep, serious athletes may do best at the upper end of these ranges to maximize improvements in performance and reduce injury risk. Did you notice that everyone needs almost the same amount, regardless of age?
When and How?
Consistency is your secret weapon! Sleep timing should be as regular as possible from day to day. The body responds incredibly well to routines. So, if the time you wake up and go to sleep each day varies, you may benefit from adopting a more regular schedule, including staying within just a 1-2 hour difference on weekends.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of sleep hygiene, take some time to look up other tips for increasing the quality and duration of your sleep. Changing meal timing and reducing screen time in the late evening are two notable factors. Harvard has some great recommendations here.
The Bottom Line
Many of us us need to sleep several hours per night more than we are, and do so with consistency. If you aren’t getting enough, now is the perfect time to ask why and see what can be done to make sleep possible. Time management and prioritizing your sleep schedule are good places to start. Sleep is just one facet of the recovery and performance picture, but it holds almost everything else together. We need to commit to getting this piece right.
So, whether you’re hoping for faster recovery between workouts, improved performance, or better overall health, sleeping more may just be your ticket. Make a plan, make your bedroom conducive for great sleep, and close those eyes! You might be surprised just how far doing absolutely nothing can take you.
Aaron Bachman, PTA
Aaron Bachman is a Physical Therapist Assistant, endurance coach, and former elite triathlete. As a PTA, Aaron also offers sport massage and gait analysis services. Read Aaron’s bio here !
- Bird SP. Sleep, recovery, and athletic performance: a brief review and recommendations. Strength Cond. J. 2013; 35:43–7.
- Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, et al. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch. Intern. Med. 2009; 169:62–7.
- Fullagar HH, Skorski S, Duffield R, et al. Sleep and athletic performance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitive responses to exercise. Sports Med. 2015; 45:161–86.
- Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep. 2011; 34:943–50.
- Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, et al. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. J. Pediatr. Orthop. 2014; 34:129–33.
- Rossa KR, Smith SS, Allan AC, Sullivan KA. The effects of sleep restriction on executive inhibitory control and affect in young adults. J. Adolesc. Health. 2014; 55:287–92.
- Skein M, Duffield R, Edge J, et al. Intermittent-sprint performance and muscle glycogen after 30 h of sleep deprivation. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2011; 43:1301–11.
- Schwartz J, Simon RD Jr. Sleep extension improves serving accuracy: a study with college varsity tennis players. Physiol. Behav. 2015; 151:541–4.
- von Rosen P, Frohm A, Kottorp A, et al. Multiple factors explain injury risk in adolescent elite athletes: applying a biopsychosocial perspective. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sports. 2017.
- Watson A, Brickson S, Brooks A, Dunn W. Subjective well-being and training load predict in-season injury and illness risk in female youth soccer players. Br. J. Sports Med. 2016.