Why Sleep Matters for Athletic Performance


DREAM ON: Why Sleep Matters for Athletic Performance

“If you told an athlete you had a treatment that would reduce the chemicals associated with stress, that would naturally increase human growth hormone, that enhances recovery rate, that improves performance, they would all do it. Sleep does all of those things.”
—Casey Smith, Head Athletic Trainer, Dallas Mavericks

Lie awake at night counting sheep? Or just don’t have enough time in your day to sleep? You’re not alone. According to the CDC, more than 35% of Americans sleep less than the recommended seven hours per night, and the consequences can be high—even deadly. Sleeping less than than recommended is associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Yikes.

How a Lack of Sleep Affects Athletic Performance

For athletes, skipping out on snoozing not only affects your health, it also inhibits your ability to perform your best. During exercise your body is depleted of fluids, energy, and your muscles are broken down. During sleep, our bodies repair and rebuild. If we skip this rest time, our bodies can’t fully recover, increasing risk of injury and hampering performance. Plus, sleep deprivation can boost cortisol production—causing weight gain.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, a lack of sleep can also cause or contribute to these health problems:

  • increased stress hormone production
  • decreased production of glycogen & carbohydrates
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • depression

Why Good Sleep Matters

Now that you know the downsides of skipping sleep, here are a few benefits for endurance athletes of resting more. If you’re training for an event, consider boosting nightly rest to 8-10 hours for legal performance enhancement.

Studies by the National Sleep Foundation noted that basketball players who slept two extra hours a night increased their sprinting speed by 9%! Their shooting accuracy also improved with the greatest benefits at the 10 hours of sleep a night mark. Carrying these benefits over to running and cycling, imagine the difference in your finish time when well rested. While this much sleep may be impossible to maintain every night, increasing your sleep for the week before an event can boost your race-day performance.

No matter your sport of choice, sleeping less reduces your reaction time to levels similar of alcohol intoxication. If you can’t imagine running a marathon or cycling a century drunk, don’t skimp on sleep before a race or event. Even pulling one all nighter can reduce reaction times by up to 300%. Get at least eight hours a night to get the benefits of better reaction times.

Studies have found that sleep hours are the strongest predictor of sports injuries, even more than hours of practice. But why? For one, fatigue reduces reaction time, meaning you can’t stop an injury as it’s about to occur. Plus, without sleep your body doesn’t have time to regenerate cells needed to protect your body. Schedule extra shut-eye to keep yourself off the sidelines.

Growth hormone is essential for muscle repair, muscle building, bone growth, and vital in sustaining your athletic performance, but you need sleep to release it. Nearly 75% of growth hormone release occurs during sleep. Snoozing for an uninterrupted seven-nine hours per night guarantees its production and your ability to recover for more endurance activities.

Athlete Steph Bruce believes good sleep matters and powers her racing.

Athlete Steph Bruce believes good sleep powers her racing.

Tips and Tricks for Better Sleep

Good news for endurance athletes; one of the best things you can do for your sleep is staying active. A study published by the National Sleep Foundation found that 150 minutes of moderate vigorous activity per week can improve sleep quality by 65%.

For elite distance runner Steph Bruce, beyond her daily workouts, cutting down on screen time is her biggest tip for better slumber. “Constantly being on your phone, tablet, and computer can zap your body of melatonin, which is our natural hormone for regulating sleep,” she says. “In the last hour before I go to sleep I really try to limit being on my phone or on my computer.” You can also set your iPhone to night shift mode during specific hours, which swaps the harsh blue light for warm colors more calming to your eyeballs.

Creating a comforting bedtime routine can also help your body and mind ready for bed. “I make a lemon ginger herbal tea each night,” says Steph. “We cut fresh ginger and lemons and add honey. This is great for your gut and keeps your immune system working well.” And when it comes to caffeine, just say no after three p.m. The effects of caffeine can stick with you for six to eight hours after consumption, keeping you alert much longer than you hoped your buzz would last.

While sleeping in on the weekends feels great, it can do a number on your sleep cycle. For better rest, try sticking to similar wake and sleep times all seven nights of the week. Last, don’t forget about your sleep environment. New pillows, sheets, or a mattress can be a quick fix for improving sleep, as can simply lowering the thermostat in your bedroom. One study found that bedroom temperature can affect sleep more than noise! A good baseline is around 68°F. While making time to sleep is tough, it’s the quickest fix for enhancing performance and reducing sports injuries.

Gear for Better Zzzzs

Still struggling to drift off to dreamland? Add these sleep solutions to your routine for a better night’s rest.

Purple Bedgear Solar1.0 pillow

BEDGEAR Solar 1.0 Pillow

Whether you’re a side or back sleeper, getting a good sleep can be as simple as changing what’s under your head. Choose your support level with firm shredded foam on one side and soft foam on the other. Stay cool with Ver-Tex® fabric, which draws heat away from you and remains cool to the touch. $229

blue BEDGEAR Ver-Tex Sheet Set product photo

BEDGEAR Ver-Tex Sheet Set

Compared to cotton, these breathable, soft Ver-Tex fabric sheets always feel cool. For hot sleepers, the body heart-deflecting sheets keep your temperature down—no matter how hot your room gets. $300

RestoreZ Sleep Solution bottle photo

RestoreZ Sleep Solution

Using natural ingredients and proven sleep promoters like melatonin and Ashwagandha Extract, these supplements help naturally resync your circadian rhythm. Each formula is designed to give you the kind of sleep you need. Choose Deep Asleep to assist in getting restful sleep, Stay Asleep to prevent midnight wake up calls, and Power Nap when you need a few mid-day zzzs. $50


About Author

Jenny Willden is the Managing Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide and a self-proclaimed gear and grammar nut. She's a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the Adventure Travel Trade Association. A lover of adventure and travel, she's happiest when riding horses or snowboarding in Utah’s mountains. Follow Jenny’s exploits on Twitter @jennywillden or Instagram @jlwillden.