Everyone needs sleep, but rest is especially important for athletes. While you might be tempted to sacrifice sleep to train harder, the smart move is rest and recovery.
Getting the sleep you need can take your athletic performance to a higher level, supporting muscle recovery, memory, and sharper mental focus. Find out why you should make sure you’re sleeping well each night, and especially during intense training or competitions.
Why Sleep is Essential for Athletes
Each night when you sleep, your body recovers and refills your energy. But when you don’t sleep well, you just don’t have the same energy. That means decreases in performance. When you do sleep well, you’re poised to do your best, as good sleep can support better recovery, memory retention, even better reaction times and lower risk of injury.
- You reduce your injury risk with more sleep. Sleep deprivation means you’re more likely to experience athletic injury. A study of adolescent athletes found that athletes who slept less than eight hours each night were more likely to have an injury than those who slept for at least eight hours.
- Sleep protects your reaction times. When you’re sleep deprived, your reaction time can suffer. This happens because you may struggle with cognitive functions as a result of sleep deprivation.
- You can focus better with sleep. Want to be more accurate and focused? A study of Major League Baseball players found that players who were more well rested had better strike zone accuracy. They also held longer professional baseball careers.
Managing Sleep as an Athlete
It’s important to think of rest as training. While you might take rest days, just resting isn’t enough. You actually need sleep. Sleep time allows you to regenerate your muscles, and you need that recovery time. Your brain and body also work on muscle memory and retention of information.
You need extra sleep during training and competition. When you’re doing heavy training, or you’re about to compete in an event, you should add some sleep time. About two extra hours of sleep could boost your performance. Ideally, you should add hours at night, but making up time with naps can be helpful, as long as they are short and timed well before the actual event or training session so you’re not waking up groggy.
Healthy adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night, and generally, athletes looking for more sleep should get up to 10 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period.
Tips for Better Sleep
You can support healthy sleep and your athletic ability with these tips:
- Plan ahead for sleep, scheduling your day’s activities around it
- Stick to a consistent sleep schedule
- Maintain a bedtime routine you follow each night
- Make your bedroom a healthy sleep environment with comfortable bedding, darkness, quiet, and a cool temperature.
- Avoid heavy meals and heavy exercise at night
- Avoid consuming caffeine in the late afternoon or evening
- Plan training early in the day so you’re more alert and less tempted to sacrifice sleep for exercise
Getting the rest you need isn’t lazy. It’s essential to your health and athletic performance. Prioritize sleep and give yourself the rest you need to perform at your highest ability.
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.