Optimising Sleep for Athletes

As athletes and running enthusiasts, we always look to maximise performance. This may be squeezing in an extra training session or maybe optimising race day nutrition. Unfortunately, most of us don’t think twice about a critical component of performance…sleep.

Sleep is long undervalued as a component of performance and recovery. We all know how our mind and body react to feeling tired. Reduced energy, low motivation, mental fog and stress.  You can imagine how your athletic performance is effected by poor sleep. Research shows that your body is unable to properly recover from training loads without adequate sleep. 

Negative Effects of Poor Sleep on Performance

Mental Fatigue: Poor sleep before a training session will make you perceive the session as being harder than if you had slept well. This is because poor sleep leads to mental fatigue…and we all know hard it is to do anything when we are mentally tired (Van Cutsem et al., 2017)

Muscle Healing: Regular sleep deficits will also reduce your muscles ability to synthesise proteins, a critical part of muscle healing. Without adequate protein synthesis, our bodies actually lose muscle mass! This means we have delayed recovery from delayed onset muscle soreness and injuries

Glycogen Restoration: Our ability to store glycogen in our muscles is also hindered by poor sleep (Skein et al., 2011). Without adequate glycogen stores, endurance performance will decline.

How Long Do Athletes Need to Sleep For

The average healthy adult needs between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. However, for an athlete or anyone completing significant amounts of exercise, it is recommended you have 9-10 hours of sleep per night. This recommendation is based on a study looking at sleep extension in professional basketball players. The researchers found that sleeping between 9-10 hours per night significantly increased sprint times, free-throw accuracy and 3-point accuracy (Mah et al., 2011). It also improved general feelings of vigour and reduced subjective daily fatigue levels.

What Causes Loss of Sleep and Poor Sleep

  • Early morning training sessions
  • Bright lights close to bedtime. E.g phone, TV, computer, bright indoor lights.
  • Caffeine and alcohol intake in late afternoon and evening
  • Mental stress. E.g work or family stresses
  • Hot sleeping environment. E.g excess blankets and heating
  • Excess light in sleeping environment. E.g bright electronic displays, poor quality curtains/shutters.
  • Irregular sleep/wake time. E.g shift-work, training times
  • Heavy meals prior to bedtime
  • Excess daytime napping
  • Excess fluid intake prior to bedtime

Strategies to Improve Sleep and Recovery

As we mentioned earlier, increasing sleep duration is one of the best recovery methods (Yes, even better than foam rolling!). Once you are training > 4-5 hours per week, we recommend aiming for the 9-10 hour sleep goal if you want to maximise performance and reduce injury risk.

Below are strategies you can implement today to improve sleep quality and duration.

  • Sleep in a slightly colder environment. Research shows sleeping in an environment cooler than 21 degrees celsius improves sleep onset time and sleep quality.
  • Having a warm shower before bed can improve sleep onset time. This is because our bodies cooling mechanisms are activated after a warm shower. This lowers our core temperature more quickly, due to a larger temperature gradient (Whitworth-Turner et al., 2017).
  • Sleep in a dark environment. Utilise black out curtains or a sleep mask.
  • Use ear plugs if you live in a noisy neighbourhood or household.
  • Limit exposure to bright screens at least 1 hour prior to bedtime.
  • No caffeine after 5pm.
  • No heavy meals within 2 hours of bedtime.
  • Reduce fluid intake prior to bedtime to reduce needing to go to the bathroom overnight.
  • Aim to have a regular sleep and wake time. On weekends, try not to sleep in >1 hour than your usual wake time.
  • If unable to fall asleep within 20 minutes. Try getting out of bed and doing a mundane task before returning to bed (no phones or computers).

Napping for athletes

Napping has been shown to be effective in improving signs of mental fatigue and performance on a time to exhaustion test. Naps are especially effective in runners and athletes who have slept less that 7 hours the night before (Blanchfield et al., 2018). It is recommended that naps should be:

  • No longer than 30 minutes
  • No later than 3 – 4pm in the afternoon.

These restrictions on napping are necessary to avoid impacts on the next nights sleep duration and quality.


Van Cutsem, J., Marcora, S., De Pauw, K., Bailey, S., Meeusen, R., & Roelands, B. (2017). The effects of mental fatigue on physical performance: a systematic review. Sports medicine47(8), 1569-1588.

Whitworth-Turner, C., Di Michele, R., Muir, I., Gregson, W., & Drust, B. (2017). A shower before bedtime may improve the sleep onset latency of youth soccer players. European journal of sport science17(9), 1119-1128.

Mah, C. D., Mah, K. E., Kezirian, E. J., & Dement, W. C. (2011). The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep34(7), 943-950.

Skein, M., Duffield, R., Edge, J., Short, M. J., & MÜndel, T. (2011). Intermittent-sprint performance and muscle glycogen after 30 h of sleep deprivation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise43(7), 1301-1311.

Blanchfield, A. W., Lewis-Jones, T. M., Wignall, J. R., Roberts, J. B., & Oliver, S. J. (2018). The influence of an afternoon nap on the endurance performance of trained runners. European journal of sport science, 1-8.

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