How much can sleep impact on performance in sport?

Sleep for performance

In elite sport the difference between first and second is often tiny differences in physiology and performance. Major sports teams and individual athletes are waking up to the importance of sleep in optimising recovery and performance. However, as coaches and athletes place more emphasis on sleep, it can increase the pressure on sleep and make athletes anxious about getting enough sleep, creating sleep problems. Getting the balance right between recognising the importance of sleep, but not getting to anxious about sleep can be tricky.

How does sleep impact on performance in sport?

There are 2 main ways that sleep can impact on performance, both of which athletes are susceptible to:

  1. Not getting enough sleep
  2. Jet-lag, or sleeping and performing in different time zones without adequate adjustment

Each of these have been shown to both reduce peak performance, impact on the effectiveness of training and have an effect on recovery from training and injury. However, the effect of lack of sleep on performance is not as great as athletes sometimes imagine. This can lead to athletes being more affected by being worried about not sleeping than from lack of sleep itself.

I see quite a lot of athletes, both in individual and team sports who have trouble getting enough sleep. It’s not uncommon for games or events to be held in the evening to optimise the viewing audience, such as evening football games, swimming finals and many other sports. Performing at an elite level is very stimulating, and it takes hours to wind down after that degree of stimulation. Games may not finish until 11pm, so it’s not realistic to expect to be able to sleep much before 2am without taking some form of sedative. However, often recovery training sessions are set early the next morning allowing only a short window for sleep.

Research done on elite Australian swimmers showed that when swimming training was scheduled early in the morning, as is common most mornings for elite swimmers, the swimmers averaged 5.4 hours of sleep per night, compared to 7.1 hours of sleep when rest days. Exacerbating this limited opportunity for sleep is the pressure that can be placed on sleep and it’s role in recovery, which can fuel the development of sleep-related anxiety.

jet lag

Travel itself can be tiring, with long days and a lot of downtime with travel and transfers, and having to sleep in a range of environments, sometimes not optimal, with a range of room-mates who may disturb each other’s sleep. In addition to this though are the effects of jet-lag or changes in time zone. This doesn’t just apply to long-haul international travel. Often travel across 2 time zones such as from East coast Australia to New Zealand or Perth can be harder to deal with. The trips aren’t long enough to allow a whole day for travel, and time for acclimatisation is often not built in as they are seen as ‘domestic’ trips. This type of travel is undertaken each week throughout the season by many Australian, US and European sports teams.

These articles from Sports Illustrated and the BBC describe some of the steps athletes and teams that have woken up to the importance of sleep now go to in the name of sleep both in the US and amongst soccer teams in Europe.

What can be done?

There are a number of steps that athletes, clubs and coaches can take to give the best chance of good sleep and ensure sufficient sleep for recovery and optimal performance.

Clubs / coaches: 

  • Ensure adequate opportunity to wind down and sleep between games or events and recovery and training sessions
  • Ensure travel routines including flights, layovers, transfers and training sessions are sleep-friendly and allow adequate time for sleep at times that are optimal for athletes body clocks
    • There are tips on managing jet lag in this post.
    • For long haul travel across many time zones consider using an app such as the Entrain app developed by the mathematics department at University of Michigan and getting some more tips from this podcast episode on jet-lag.
  • Whilst emphasising the importance of sleep, don’t put too much pressure on sleep. I’ve seen an elite cyclist whose coach told them they must sleep for at least 9 hours each night or they wouldn’t perform at their best. Very few people can sleep for that long, even if they try, so this just resulted in the cyclist getting anxious about sleep and sleeping worse.
  • Encourage napping as way of catching up on sleep
  • Arrange education on good sleep habits for athletes and team staff and encourage good sleep behaviours

Individual athletes:

  • Recognise your sleep type: good sleeper vs poor sleeper, early-bird vs night-owl.
    • If you recognise they’re you’re not a good sleeper, developing your ‘sleep skills’ by learning more about sleep through online resources such as SleepHub, seeing a sleep physician or psychologist who specialises in managing sleep problems can go a long way towards helping to better manage sleep
    • Early-birds will naturally tend to sleep better going to bed early and waking early, whereas night-owls do better sleeping later. It makes sense for early-birds to share rooms for example, rather than having an early-bird share a room with a night-owl.
  • sleep and cyclingMeasure your sleep for a few weeks using a sleep diary or a device such as an activity tracker. This allows you to calculate your average sleep per night over a couple of weeks which takes in to account the variation in sleep that occurs on a night to night basis. Once you have an understanding of your average amount of sleep on a week where you feel and are performing well, that can be your individual goal which will most likely be different from the average amount of sleep for someone of your age.
  • Manage the fine balance between recognising the importance of sleep, but not getting overly anxious about sleep, or trying too hard to control sleep. I like to use the terms ‘respect’ for sleep, whilst maintaining ‘ambivalence’ about sleep. That can be a hard balance to strike.
  • Develop skills for ‘switching off’. It’s not something that comes naturally and takes practice to develop those skills. Some people like meditation, others more movement focussed activities such as yoga, pilates, walking or stretching, whereas others prefer breathing focussed relaxation strategies or even reading. Mindfulness can be a great tool for not just switching off, but also helping with sleep troubles. To hear a discussion of how mindfulness can be used around sleep, listen to this podcast episode.

We all have different sleep needs and getting a better understanding of your individual needs, then developing your sleep skills to get sleep working for you can work in your favour if your are trying to optimise your sporting performance.

Related links and posts:

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At Sleephub we understand the struggle people endure with sleeping problems which is why we have created a comprehensive FAQs page with information for those seeking information about sleep disorders and potential solutions.





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