Gabrielle Herman, PT, DPT, CMPT

It is well recognized that getting 7-9 hours of sleep for adults and 8-10 hours for adolescents is an essential component of health and general well-being. In the more recent years, there has been accumulating evidence regarding the importance of sleep for recovery from athletic training and competition as well as it’s effect on athletic performance. Unfortunately, athletes have been shown to consistently average les than 8 hours of sleep along with higher reports of poor sleep quality amongst elite athletes.

Barriers to Sleep in Athletes

  • Poor self-assessment of sleep need, duration, quality making athletes less likely to seek guidance or medical help
  • Excessive training volume
    • Studies showed an Increase in acute training load was associated with decreased sleep duration and quality in youth female soccer players and Australian football players
  • Training schedule: sleep duration significantly impacted by early morning training
  • Long distance travel and the associated disruptions in mood, stress, and anxiety
    • Retrospective 40 year study of NFL night game competitions show a consistently higher success rate for west coast based NFL teams compared to east coast teams due to altered sleep schedules and disruption of circadian rhythms
  • Increased levels of stress, anxiety, and insomnia around competition
  • Concomitant academic pressures in youth and collegiate athletes
  • Sleep-disordered breathing only affects 4% of the population but has been estimated to be present in 14% of professional football players

 Sleep and Performance

  • Poor quality sleep was an independent predictor of lost competition in a recent study in Brazil on elite male and female athletes
  • In team sports, improved sleep duration and quality are associated with increased changes of competitive success

Endurance and Anaerobic Power

  • Sleep deprivation inhibits performance perhaps through perceived exertion
    • 30-minute self-paced treadmill test was administered to 11 male subjects randomly assigned to normal night’s sleep and 30 hours sleep deprivation
      • The deprivation group had a decreased distance covered without differences in thermoregulatory functions or oxygen consumption
    • One night of sleep loss shown to decrease time to exhaustion in progressive testing in volleyball players
    • A single night of restricted sleep after a heavy exercise bout resulted in a 4% decrease in 3-km time trial performance the following morning in adult cyclists
  • Pre exercise muscle glycogen stores are decreased after sleep deprivation

Sprint Performance

  • Evidence for speed and strength training and sleep deprivation is conflicting
  • Studies vary in results for sprint tests with sleep deprivation as some results show increased times, decreased times and some no change

 Sleep, Injury and Illness

  • Impaired or decreased sleep is associated with increased risk of injury
    • Study in middle and high school athletes found those who slept less than 8 hours per night were 70% more likely to report an injury
  • The greatest risk for injury results when training load is increased and sleep duration decreased simultaneously, which is often seen in competitive travel and training camps
  • The underlying mechanism may be related to impairments in reaction time and cognitive function or may contribute to higher levels of fatigue
  • Decreased sleep is immunosuppressive and increases susceptibility to upper respiratory infection

 Interventions to Promote Sleep in Athletes

  • Athletes with complaints of poor sleep or excessive daytime fatigue should be screened for medical conditions such as insomnia, sleep disordered breathing, restless legs syndrome, depression, anxiety, or concomitant illness
  • A sleep monitor or daily sleep journal kept for 2 weeks can be used to quantify sleep duration
  • Gradually extend sleep by 30-60 minutes per night utilizing the following sleep hygiene techniques:
    • Sleeping in a cool dark environment without electronic devices
    • Minimal ambient noise or distraction
    • Establish consistent sleep and wake times
    • Incorporate 30-60 minutes of quiet relaxation before bedtime
    • Portable electronic devices may suppress natural melatonin production and interfere with sleep, therefore restriction from use for at least 1 hour prior to bedtime may be reasonable
    • Over the counter sleep aids should be avoided
    • Caffeine and stimulants limited to the morning hours
    • Variation in training schedule should be minimized
    • Early morning and late evening training/competitions should be avoided when possible

In conclusion, optimizing your sleep duration and quality can have a large impact on not only sport performance, but can also reduce sport related injury risk and keep you healthy!  Proper scheduling, travel protocols, time management, stress management, and sleep hygiene in athletes can improve overall well-being and athletic performance success.

Watson, Andrew M., MD, MS. “Sleep and Athletic Performance” American College of Sports Medicine, Volume 16, Number 6: 413-418, (2017).