How Do Sleep Patterns Affect Your Athletic Performance?
9 min read
Last Modified 24 January 2023 First Added 20 March 2015
Research has shown that certain sleeping patterns play a big part in reaching the higher echelons of sporting success. Here, we look at how sleep impacts athletic performance and explore scientific studies on the topic.
Sports scientists around the globe advocate for the importance of sleep to sporting success. Typically, they split their judgement into two key areas: quality and quantity.
Simply, how many hours of sleep are athletes getting and how does this affect the body’s natural ability to repair muscular tissue, improve heart health and decrease stress and anxiety? The amount of hours athletes sleep is important because it’s only when we’re in the land of nod that our bodies can truly recover from the impact of physical exertion.
Our ability to recover is most high when we enter deep sleep. During this stage of our sleep cycle, our pulse and blood pressure are lowered, which gives the heart and blood vessels a chance to rest and recover.
Professional athletes need between 8-10 hours sleep every night. That’s because they exert their bodies to a higher degree than the average person. For amateur sports-people and fitness enthusiasts, 7 to 9 hours will suffice.
However, they should listen to their bodies and amend their quantity of sleep if they regularly feel tired upon waking.
That’s most likely to happen when their training schedule closely resembles a professional’s. For example, if an amateur athlete is training or going to the gym more than 3 days a week, their body will need ample recovery time. That means they’ll need a similar quantity of sleep to a professional.
Quality of sleep goes a step further than quantity, centring around how well your body uses the hours you are asleep for recovery. Unbroken sleep is key. As is ensuring your body gets the right amount of deep sleep compared to REM. A healthy amount of deep sleep is typically between 13 and 23% of your total time asleep.
While you have an element of control over when you go to sleep and when you wake up, you don’t have conscious control of sleep quality. To improve, focus on broader factors: diet, routine, and mental well-being.
Over 80% of Team GB athletes claim to have a regular bedtime routine – where they go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. That’s compared to just 15% of the public who try but fail at a regular routine. A further 12% of the public claim to have no bedtime routine – not good, guys!
Athletes are also more likely to stick to regular bedtime routines. For example, 23% of ParalympicsGB athletes avoid using their phones before bedtime, compared to just 10% of the general public. Similarly, 52% of athletes listen to music or podcasts before nodding off. Only 11% of the UK public do this, the majority (53%) instead choosing to watch TV.
As identified, controlling your bedtime routine and diet is important for maximising sleep quality. There are others factors to consider too. Here, we’ll explore those.
The optimal temperature to sleep in is around 16 to 18°C, which is cooler than the typical room temperature. Therefore, it’s often easier to get good-quality sleep in winter than on hot summer nights.
However, winter can also negatively impact sleep quality. The lower levels of light available in winter have been linked to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), while reducing energy levels and mood quality too. Cold temperatures can also increase the need to urinate and the release of stress hormones.
At the other extreme, extremely hot weather can make sleep difficult. A hotter sleep environment makes you more likely to toss and turn, disrupting your sleep pattern. Sleep therapist Christabel Majendie explains this in more detail:
Before you go to sleep naturally, your body produces a hormone called melatonin which causes a drop in core body temperature that is needed for sleep. If the ambient temperature is too high, this process is interrupted, so it may take longer to get to sleep.
This explains why people sleep more during the long, cold nights of winter – it’s easier for your body to reach a comfortable sleeping temperature. And as explained, sleep quality can affect athletic performance, with temperature playing its part.
Sunlight also has an impact on quality of sleep and differs greatly between the winter and summer months. Changing sunrise and sunset times can affect melatonin levels as well as the time you start to feel sleepy at night, according to the Alaska Sleep Clinic. So when the sun sets later, it may take longer to feel sleepy.
Athletes clearly can’t do anything about the sun, but they can have some control over their sleeping environment and how much natural light they experience. By eliminating external light using blackout curtains and putting away all electronic devices they can create the best chance of getting all the sleep they need. It’s also important to try and get direct sunlight in the morning to keep your circadian rhythm in its most natural cycle.
Indeed, this approach can be good for their health because it allows for a better CO2 balance in the bedroom, aiding and improving sleep quality.
This is important for both athletes as not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences, as Millie explains:
Skiing is a high-risk sport and requires quick thinking and concentration. If this is impaired by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep, mistakes can occur, resulting in loss of speed or danger.
It’s not exactly rocket science to understand that performance levels differ throughout the day. For example, you’re probably not ready and raring to go the moment you wake up or when you’re ready for bed at night. This relates to sleep cycles and how we approach our sleep routine.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham have shown that performance can actually vary by as much as 26% across the day, depending on what type of sleeper you are.
They studied 20 female hockey players and asked them to perform a series of 20-metre sprints in shorter and shorter times. Taking inspiration from animal sleep patterns, they found that performance for early risers (referred to as larks) peaked at midday, while late risers (owls) peaked at around 8PM. Those somewhere in between peaked at around 4PM.
Head researcher, Dr. Roland Brandstaetter, told the BBC:
‘Athletes and coaches would benefit greatly if they knew when optimal or suboptimal performance time was. So, if you’re an early type competing in the evening, you’re impaired, so you could adjust sleeping times to the competition’.
Putting this into a real-life situation, Dr. Brandstaetter explained that body-clock issues could be a reason why English football clubs tend to struggle against European teams in the Champions League, an evening competition. He said: ‘You have players that do extraordinarily well in the English Premier League at 15:00, but they suddenly don’t perform as well in the evening in the Champions League’.
Spanish teams notoriously do well in the Champions League and this could be due to the sleep cycle of these athletes. They largely have a biphasic sleep cycle, where they sleep for a couple of hours during the day and are awake later at night. This means they are at peak performance during the evening when the Champions League games are played.
This could hold some weight, and having a ‘siesta’ may help you feel more awake in the evening. But if you look more closely at the performance of Spanish teams in the Champions League, it’s only really Barcelona and Real Madrid who consistently excel, the two richest teams in Spain who can spend the most on the better players.
Good sleep enables your heart to rest and cells and tissue to repair. And for athletes it makes possible the extreme levels of physical exertion required every day in training and competition.
Research has been conducted at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory into the sleep patterns and athletic performance of Stanford athletes. It found that more sleep leads to better sports performance.
Stanford academic Cheri Mah discovered that getting extra sleep over several weeks improved performance, mood and alertness for athletes on Stanford’s men’s and women’s swimming teams and the men’s basketball team. It’s believed that deep sleep boosts athletic performance as this is when the growth hormone is released, stimulating muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning.
Equally, a lack of sleep seems to have a negative effect on sports performance, mental processes, mood and reaction time. Wider research shows only 20 hours of sleep deprivation can damage sports performance, especially for skill and power sports.