Why is sleep important for athletes?

May 23, 2022, 11:17 a.m.

Why is sleep important for athletes?




Several studies supported by the SLEEP FOUNDATION confirm that good sleep is essential for general health and well-being, whether or not you are an athlete. Everyone needs sleep to feel refreshed and perform at their best the next day. Other physical benefits include:


  • It allows the heart to rest and cells and tissues to repair. This can help the body recover after physical exertion. In addition, nightly changes in heart rate and breathing contribute to cardiovascular health as sleep progresses.


  • Prevent disease or help recover from illness. During sleep, the body produces cytokines, which are hormones that help the immune system fight infection.



How sleep helps an athlete's mental state:

Sleep helps everyone retain and consolidate memories. When athletes practice or learn new skills, sleep helps form memories and contributes to future performance. Without sleep, the brain pathways that enable learning and memory cannot be formed and maintained.


Sleep is also essential for cognitive processing. Lack of sleep is associated with cognitive decline. This can negatively affect athletes whose sports require high levels of cognitive function, such as decision-making and adapting to new situations.


Furthermore, just as exercise can help improve or maintain mental health, sleep is also important for maintaining an athlete's mental health. High-quality sleep is associated with an improved overall mental state. Healthy sleep can prevent irritability and reduce the risk of conditions such as depression.



Lack of sleep affects an athlete's performance:

While the quality of sleep has a positive effect on sports performance, sleep deprivation is detrimental to performance. A number of problems can arise when athletes do not get enough sleep:

  • Inhibited capacity. In a study of male team sport athletes who were sleep deprived, average and total sprint times decreased.

  • Decreased accuracy. After sleep deprivation, male and female tennis players had a decrease in serving accuracy of up to 53% compared to performance after normal sleep.

  • Faster depletion. In a study of runners and volleyball players, both groups of athletes exhausted faster after sleep deprivation.

  • Decreased reaction time. Sleep deprivation negatively affected reaction time in a studied group of male college athletes.

  • Difficulty in learning and decision-making. Executive functions are affected by lack of sleep. Decisions such as passing the ball or taking it to the net oneself may be more difficult or become too slow.

  • Risk of injury. Research with middle and high school athletes found that chronic sleep deprivation is associated with a higher rate of injury.

  • Risk of illness or immunosuppression. Poor sleep habits are associated with lower resistance to illnesses, such as the common cold.



Sleep hygiene tips for athletes:

Sleep hygiene is important for all people to sleep well. The most common components are:

  • Create a suitable sleeping environment. Your sleeping space should be dark and cool, with little or no noise. Your sleep environment should be used only for sex and sleep.

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime. These drinks can disrupt sleep or cause further sleep disturbances.

  • Stay away from electronic devices in the hours before bedtime. This includes televisions, mobile phones and computers. The blue light emitted by these devices can affect your circadian rhythm.

  • Have a routine to relax. Activities such as reading, bathing or meditation can help you relax and prepare for sleep.

  • Get out of bed if you can't fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying. Do a quiet activity in another space until you feel sleepy.


In addition to these sleep hygiene tips, other particularly important habits for sportsmen and women are:

  • Avoid overtraining. Keep a consistent training schedule so as not to overexert yourself.

  • Avoid training and competitions too early or too late. This can affect the quantity and quality of sleep, especially if your sporting schedule is inconsistent.

  • Naps should be short, if you take them at all. Naps should last no longer than an hour and should not be taken after 3pm.

  • Reduce stressors. Mental stressors not only affect sleep quality, but also influence overall performance.