Sleep: The Ultimate Recovery Tool and Performance Enhancer

As an athlete you are always looking for ways to improve your performance and recovery so you can train harder and get faster. You have access to great coaching with training plans, nutrition secrets and strength training just to name a few. But you are always looking for a way to get that extra edge on the competition. Well there is an easy, cheap, and legal way to improve your performance. It could be as easy as getting more sleep!

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (June 2008 “Ongoing Study Continues to Show that Extra Sleep Improves Athletic Performance“) increasing one’s sleep can increase athletic performance.

Cheri Mah at Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory has been studying sleep and athletic performance for many years. Over the years she has done studies with the Stanford men’s and women’s swim teams, women’s tennis, and men’s basketball, football, track and field teams looking at the effects of increased sleep on athletic performance. These studies showed that after anywhere from 5-7 weeks of extending one’s sleep to 10 hours a night, all the athletes showed improvements in their performance, mood and alertness. In particular the swimmers swam a 15 meter sprint 0.51 seconds faster, reacted 0.15 seconds quicker off the blocks and improved their turn times by 0.10 seconds and increased their kick strokes by 5.0 kicks.  Mah also noted that many of the athletes in this study have set multiple new personal records and season best times, as well as broken long-standing Stanford and American records while participating in the study. Also those athletes who were unable to comply with 10 hours a night of sleep showed improved performance with just an increase of 30 minutes of sleep a night.

Another, more recent study published in the December 2019 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise®, had results showing that athletes were able to better maintain endurance performance after three nights of sleep extension. So compared with a normal night of sleep, they found adding in just 90 minutes per night for three consecutive nights improved time-trial performance by an average of nearly two minutes (58.7 versus 56.8 minutes). They also showed that after two nights of sleep restriction, athletes performed slower times (60.4 versus 58.8 minutes). Perceived exertion was also examined, and researchers found that similar scores (i.e., near-maximal effort) were reported irrespective of the condition or time-trial being undertaken. Therefore, sleep extension effectively improved exercise tolerance by increasing the athletes’ power output for a given perceived effort. Interestingly, the benefits of extended sleep recognized in this study, did not manifest until after three night of sleep extension. This highlights the importance of cumulative sleep time for endurance athletes. It’s not just about getting a good night’s sleep, but also taking the time to extend sleep more consistently, especially during times of reaching desired peak performance.

What does sleep do that can improve performance? During slow wave sleep (deepest sleep) there are specific metabolic processes, which occur that help us recovery from our workouts. This includes the release of human growth hormone, which helps to promote recovery, regeneration and helps to build lean muscle mass. In addition sleep is essential to glucose metabolism, which replenishes our glycogen stores for the next days workout. Research also suggests that REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is critical for memory consolidation and for embedding a certain task or skill learned during the day. Researchers at Harvard Medical School, Matthew Walker PhD and Robert Stickgold, PhD, have done sleep and chronobiological studies looking at learning and have found that after initial training the human brain continues to learn in the absence of further practice. This improvement develops while you sleep.

So how much sleep do we need? There was a study done in 1994 by the National Institute of Mental Health where subjects stayed in bed in the dark for 14 hours every night for 28 consecutive nights. Initially they slept as much as 12 hours a night, suggesting they were sleep deprived and then by the fourth week their sleep stabilized to a nightly average of 8 hours and 15 minutes. In general it is recommended adults get 7-9 hours of sleep a night while adolescents need at least 9 hours of sleep due to the growth process. Individuals who are more active tend to need more than the recommended amount of sleep. A general rule of thumb is if you fall asleep within 20 minutes and wake up spontaneously you have the right amount of sleep.

Most of the athletes I work with have busy lives with jobs, and families and find they have to set an alarm to get up in the morning and often times get less than the recommended amount of sleep.

Studies have show that sleep deprivation can be improved by strategic napping throughout the day. It is recommended to limit your naps to 30 minutes and the natural time to nap is about 12 hours from the midpoint of your longest sleep cycle. If you sleep from 11 pm to 7 am that would mean around 3 pm would be the best time to nap. Unfortunately that may not always work for the average working person but the point being a nap can be very beneficial.

So what happens if we don’t’ get enough sleep?

According to sleep researcher William Dement, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University chronic sleep restriction, which is widespread among American adults, has serious adverse consequences for physical and mental performance. He reports that sleep loss is cumulative and refers to this phenomenon as “sleep debt”.  He explains that the brain records as a debt every hour of sleep that is less than a person’s nightly requirement. This snowballing debt may include an hour of sleep lost a week or month ago, as well as the hour lost last night. A large sleep debt can only be reduced by extra sleep.

As well there are many medical conditions that contribute to poor sleep. At the American College of Sports Medicine’s 12th-annual Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition in March 2008, William G. Herbert PhD, FACSM presented information on the effect of sleep and sleep deprivation in the fitness field. He reported that one quarter of all people have some form of a sleep disorder with only 50% of those being diagnosed. He reported that sleep is important in regulating appetite and metabolism, in particular glucose metabolism. He reported those who are sleep deprived over time overeat and gradually gain weight. Then those that are overweight are more at risk for Sleep Apnea syndrome- a disorder where individuals can wake up to 100 times a night where they “gasping for air”. This in turn can lead to a chronic lack of energy; lack of motivation for exercise, high blood pressure and depression all things that can decrease ones ability to engage in an exercise program.

In addition to the medical risks of sleep deprivation it can adversely affect athletic performance from both a physical and psychological perspective.

Psychologically, sleep deprived athletes have an increased rate of perceived exertion as well as an increased feeling of fatigue. As well the increased cortisol being released as well as disruption of the normal sleep/wake cycle can lead to mood swings, irritability and depression.

From a physical perspective, sleep deprivation can be detrimental to athletes on multiple levels. The cognitive impairment that results from sleep deprivation can lead to impaired motor function or delayed reaction time (both visual and auditory) for that athlete.

In addition, metabolic consequences of sleep deprivation all can contribute to diminished performance. The decreased secretion of human growth hormone will diminish regeneration and recovery as well as diminish the production of lean body mass. The effect of sleep deprivation on glucose metabolism can lead to decreased storage, conversion and metabolism of glucose leaving the athlete with limited glycogen stores for the next days workout as well as place them at risk for diabetes and weight gain. This can happen on as little as 7-10 days of limiting sleep.

A consistent lack of sleep has been shown to reduce cardiovascular performance with some studies showing as little as 30-36 hours of sleep deprivation resulting in a loss of performance. Increased production of cortisol, a stress hormone, happens with sleep deprivation. Cortisol has many negative effects to an athlete including diminished recovery, decreased immune functioning, increased fat storage and negative mood changes in the athlete.

As you can imagine, the combination of both these physical and mental factors can increase the risk of injury to a sleep-deprived athlete. As well, overtraining can occur with a much smaller volume or intensity of training in sleep-deprived individuals.

Sleep is governed by both homeostasis and as a direct result of a circadian biological clock. In terms of restorative processes when the body is subjected to a very demanding period of activity it will seek homeostasis by wanting to get a good sleep to recover. Also, circadian rhythms tell the body when it is alert and when it should sleep. This is under the control of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that also controls hormonal release, body temperature and how the body responds to light and darkness. Jet lag can affect a person’s sleep. Jet lag generally affects athletes who are competing in time zone more than four hours different than their home time zone.

Other things that can interfere with a good nights sleep are alcohol (it creates an artificial desire to sleep as a depressant), caffeine or other stimulants, medications, anxiety, snoring or other medical conditions, high intensity exercise or large meals within a couple of hours of bedtime, and napping within 3 hours of bedtime just to name a few.

So next time you think about getting up earlier to fit in that extra workout, think about it in terms of the risk to benefit ratio. Am I getting enough sleep? Will that extra workout really make that much of a difference in my overall training if I am sleep deprived? Most of the time a good nights sleep will do you more good in your overall training regimen than an extra early morning workout in lieu of a good nights sleep.

Here are some recommendations for getting a good night sleep and for sleep habits for athletes:

·      Maintain a good amount of sleep regularly aiming for 7-9 hours a night so as not to develop sleep debt.

·      Gear up for competition by extending your sleep the weeks before the event (remember the Stanford athletes, 10 hours a night )

·      Try to go to bed and wake up the same time every day

·      Don’t eat heavy foods right before bedtime

·      If you can’t get a good night’s sleep try to take naps but don’t nap within 3 hours of your bedtime

·      If you have chronic daytime fatigue or you are a known snorer, get a medical evaluation

·      Don’t do any high intensity exercise right before bedtime

·      Don’t watch TV or read electronics in bed

. Limit “screen time” for 2 hours prior to bed

·      Limit the use of alcohol as that interferes with sound sleep

·      Limit use of caffeine during the afternoon/evening

·      Don’t sacrifice sleep for “one more workout”


C. Mah. Study Shows Sleep Extension Improves Athletic Performance and Mood. Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep

Societies. June 8, 2009.


www.ACSM.orgAmerican College of Sports Medicine

“Extended Sleep Maintains Endurance Performance Better than Normal or Restricted Sleep.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: December 2019 – Volume 51 – Issue 12 – p 2516-2523