How much sleep do athletes need to do their best?

RYAN SKIDMORE / Dec 04, 2018

It’s true: what spectators see on the court is a result of what happens off the court. But people usually refer to the hours dedicated to practice, working out, studying the competition, and planning meals.  What about the most important hours necessary for achieving peak athletic performance? We’re talking, of course, about the countless hours spent in an unconscious dream state, otherwise known as sleep.

We get it; you’re busy! Between practices, games, work, school, family, friends, other commitments, it’s hard to make sleep a priority. However, it’s hard to overstate the benefits of sleep for athletes. When you’re competing with the best, a pattern of good sleep can be the difference between victory and defeat.

Why is Sleep Such a Big Deal for Athletes?

Truthfully, sleep is a big deal for everyone! Proper sleep will help anyone perform their daily tasks better. However, athletes (especially those performing at an elite level) push their bodies beyond what the average person is capable of. In addition, most sports require athletes to make split-second decisions and react instantly to a constantly changing environment. Because of this, athletes need more sleep to improve physical recovery, enhance skills, hone their decision making, and shorten the reaction time.

  1. Physical Recovery

    As mentioned, athletes push their bodies through more physical exertion than the average person. While working out, your muscles and nervous system experience quite a bit of wear and tear, which is an essential part of growth. Most muscle recovery and rebuilding happen while you are asleep. There is no substitute for regular, restful sleep. It is impossible to maintain peak performance if you do not give your body the needed time to recover from the strain it endures during training.

  2. Skill Enhancement

    As you sleep, your brain processes the day, including any new skills you may have learned or improvements you’ve made. Just as the growth hormone can help your body recover, it can also help solidify the progress you’ve made when learning a new skill or improving your current skill set.

    Athletes who increase their daily sleep allotment may learn and retain new skills faster than those who experience sleep deprivation.

  3. Decision Making

    Sleep helps your mind recover from the stresses of the day. Regular, proper sleep schedules can help you be more alert and sharpen your cognitive skills. When you have to make constant, split-second decisions on the court (or on the field, in the pool, on the track, etc.), you’ll appreciate these benefits.

  4. Reaction Times

    Michael Phelps, American swimming idol with an impressive 28 Olympic medals, is known for his impressive commitment to the sport. In preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, Phelps slept in a special, high-altitude sleeping chamber for a year in order to improve his reaction time.

    While most athletes do not need to go to such extreme lengths, it illustrates the impact your sleeping environment can have on your performance. Athletes who get enough sleep typically react faster than those who aren’t well rested.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

First, it’s important to note that no one day will make or break your entire performance. If you have a hard time falling asleep before a big game, you’ll be more tired, which can impact your performance, but it’s more important to create a pattern of getting enough sleep every night. That being said, don’t use that as an excuse to stay out all night the day before the game; you will feel the negative effects the next day.

  • Regular Routine

    First, take a look at your sleep habits right now. Do you typically fall asleep within about 20 minutes of going to bed, does it take you an hour of tossing and turning, or do you fall asleep the instant you get in bed? If the last two situations feel more familiar than the first, then you probably aren’t regularly getting the right amount of sleep.

    While the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep, athletes should strive for 8-10. It’s important to note that every person is different; you may need more or less sleep than the average person, but you should definitely try to fall in the range of 8-10 hours a night.

  • Before a Game or Big Event

    The day of a big game or event is usually long and extra stressful. In order to reach peak performance, it’s a good idea to get a little extra sleep. Aim for a full 10 hours of sleep the night before the game/event. This will require extra planning on your part. If you know it takes you an extra 30 minutes to fall asleep before a big event, work that into your schedule. Make sure you plan enough time for a proper sleep routine as well.

    Additionally, if you are traveling to a new area before a big game, try to arrive a couple of days early to adjust yourself to the new environment, if possible. This will help you get enough sleep the night before the game or event.

How Do I Improve My Sleep Patterns?

  1. Commit to a Schedule

    If your bedtime wildly varies from one night to another, your body will get confused, which can make it harder to fall asleep each night.

    Obviously, you don’t always have complete control over your schedule, but it is important to try and fall asleep and wake up at the same times every day as often as possible. While it might be difficult at first, your body will start to adjust to the schedule, which will make it easier to go to sleep and wake up each day.

  2. Build a Wind-down Routine

    Many people struggle to smoothly transition from their daily schedule to sleep. If you have a hard time falling asleep because your mind is still so busy, you are far from alone. A distinct, wind-down routine can help ease this daily transition. As you start to do the same thing in preparation for bed each and every day, your body will start to recognize the cues.

    Start off by putting away at least a half hour before you try to go to sleep. The rest of the routine depends on you. Perhaps you could read a couple of chapters from a book or take a bath before brushing your teeth, washing your face, and changing into pyjamas. The content of the routine doesn’t matter as much as the presence of it. Just pick relaxing activities you can easily repeat each day.

  3. Create a Soothing Environment

    An ideal sleeping environment is similar to a cave—dark, cool, and quiet.

    First, focus on blocking out natural sources of light. Invest in a quality set of blackout curtains for each window in your room. Next, remove all unnecessary electronics from your room. If possible, charge your phone in a closed drawer in your room while you sleep.

    Experts recommend maintaining a temperature in the 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit range in your bedroom. The right temperature can help you fall asleep faster and experience higher quality REM sleep at night. Your mattress and pillows can also impact sleeping temperature.

    While you probably can’t get rid of all ambient noise, bedrooms with a lot of textiles can help to absorb sound. Carpeting is the best flooring choice, but if you have hard floors, then invest in a large rug.

    An essential element of a soothing environment is a high-quality mattress. Uncomfortable mattresses can make it feel impossible to fall asleep from night to night. Make sure you have a mattress that will help relieve pressure and isolate motion all while keeping you comfortable from night to night.

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