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The Importance of Sleep

for Athletic Performance

Geoff J.G. Marshall, MSc, CSCS and Anthony N. Turner, MSc, CSCS*D
London Sports Institute, Middlesex University, London, United Kingdom

ABSTRACT reduced motivation and arousal levels, often neglected when optimizing recov-
and reduced cognitive processes leading ery and competition performance (41).
to poor attention and concentration and This alludes to the need of greater ath-
heightened levels of perceived exertion lete education surrounding this subject,
OUT TRAINING IS AN IMPORTANT because subsequently, sleep deprivation
and pain perception (13). Limitations
FOCUS FOR THE STRENGTH AND leads to disruption of training intensity
to physiological processes include dis-
CONDITIONING COACH. SLEEP IS and performance at competition (38). In
rupted glucose metabolism and neuro-
AN INFLUENTIAL FACTOR THAT endocrine functioning, a compromised light of this, sleep can be improved with
AFFECTS THE QUALITY OF TRAIN- immune system, and reduction in car- a few recommendations, including strat-
ING, GIVEN ITS IMPLICATIONS ON diovascular performance (13). Clearly, egies to fall asleep and the timing and
THE RECOVERY PROCESS. sleep is important for the athlete by pro- duration of sleep. Therefore the aim of
INTENSE TRAINING MAY PREDIS- viding opportunity for the body to this review is to provide support for
POSE ATHLETES TO RISK FAC- recover from training and preparing athletes to enhance their sleep quality
TORS SURROUNDING DISTURBED for the subsequent training or competi- and subsequently improve their training
SLEEP PATTERNS. THESE MAY BE tion day (11). General recommenda- and performance.
DUE TO INHERENT PHYSICAL tions suggest that 79 hours of sleep is
EXERTION, COMMITMENT TO adequate for psychological (ability to
learn, motivation, and memory) and
ULES, THE EFFECTS OF TRAVEL, There are 5 individual stages of sleep
physiological (metabolism and inflam-
involving varied levels of conscious-
DOMESTIC OR INTERNATIONAL, mation) recovery (5). Additionally, it
ness and brain activity, occurring over
AND THE PRESSURES THAT COM- has been suggested that athletes require
consecutive phases (43). These stages
PETITION EVOKES. EDUCATING a greater quantity of sleep (39) to are known as 1, 2, 3, 4 and rapid eye
ATHLETES ON THE IMPLICATIONS recover sufficiently from injury, intense movement (REM). Stages 14 within
OF SLEEP SHOULD BE IMPLE- training periods, and competition. this cycle are typically referred to as
MENTED BY STRENGTH AND Recovery is promoted through the nonREM (NREM) and are the pro-
CONDITIONING COACHES TO release of hormones, where growth hor- gressions of sleep before the first epi-
OPTIMIZE ATHLETE RECOVERY, mone and androgens are both essential sode of REM sleep transpires. The
PROMOTE CONSISTENT SLEEP for muscle repair, muscle building, bone approximate cycle duration between
ROUTINES, AND SLEEP LENGTH. growth and promoting the oxidation NREM and REM is 90 minutes, with
of fat (3). Melatonin is produced by the specific duration of REM increas-
the neurotransmitter serotonin, which ing independently across the night.
is stimulated by darkness and subse- Before stage 1 occurs and the onset
common approach while opti-

A mizing athlete performance is

to include daily monitoring of
fatigue, stress, and recovery (1,29,34).
quently released from the pineal gland
during the night to prompt sleep (4).
Melatonin has a range of antioxidant
properties (23), and given its sensitivity
of sleep begins, the body must be in
a relaxed state for 520 minutes, out-
lining the need for athletes to avoid any
Although there are many strategies to form of stimulating activity (e.g.,
to light and the influence this hormone watching TV and using tablets) before
influence each of these, sleep is a strat-
egy that contributes to significant recov- has upon recovery and health, promot- beginning sleep.
ery from multiple fatiguing events, ing a suitable sleeping environment is
including both cognitive and physiolog- paramount.
ical tasks, and is an influential factor in Sleep deprivation is considered com-
REM; melatonin; nonREM; growth
avoiding overtraining (11). Sleep depri- mon amongst athletes (8,21,22,42),
vation leads to poor performance, where sleep duration and quality is

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Athlete Recovery

Stage 1 lasts for between 10 seconds the metabolic expenditure of the pre- sleepiness reduced after napping and
and 10 minutes, where the individual vious training day, and stimulating short-term memory improved, coupled
is still consciously aware of any envi- memory and learning potential for the with enhancements in reaction time and
ronmental change, meaning there is subsequent training day (16). Hauss- greater performance for 20 m sprints.
a high potential for awakening to wirth and Mujika (2013) additionally Therefore the importance of sleep is
occur, highlighting the need for an identify how during deep sleep, the paramount in promoting optimal cogni-
optimal sleeping environment (no enhanced activity of various neuronal tive functioning to facilitate learning
sound, lights off, etc.). Stage 2 lasts connections prevents the onset of and performing skills within training,
between 10 and 20 minutes, and is possible deterioration that would be and ensuring recovery of physiological
the beginning of actual sleep, followed incurred because of reduced activity mechanisms to avoid significant muscle
by stages 3 and 4. Altogether, these are due to sleep deprivation. inflammation and maintenance of the
the deepest stages of sleep, occurring The use of extended sleeping time has immune system. Although extended
for 3040 minutes and largely the been explored in past research within sleep periods are ideal for athletic per-
period in which growth hormone is athletes who habitually endure sleep formance, if it is not possible, napping
released (13). After the last phase, may be a valuable assistant.
deprivation or experience significant
stages 3 and 2 are repeated before pro-
sleep debt. Comparing a 4-week base-
gressing directly to REM, which is the
line habitual sleep period to a 7-week SLEEP DEPRIVATION
most active state of sleep. This process
sleep extension period involving at Previous research has highlighted how
is repeated up to 6 times, contributing
least 10 hours sleep each night, basket- common poor sleep quality is among
to sleep quality. The total structure of
ball performance measures were the athletic population. In a group of
sleep constitutes 75% NREM and
enhanced (23), sprint times were faster Olympic athletes, significant reduc-
25% REM, with the majority of REM
(15.5 6 0.54 seconds versus 16.2 6 tions in actual sleep (84.3 6 5.7 versus
met within the last third of night time
0.61), and shooting accuracy improved 89.7 6 3.3) and efficiency (80.6 6 6.4
sleep (6). A greater frequency and
by 9% coupled with decreased reaction versus 88.7 6 3.6, repeated stages of
duration of REM experienced during
times, reported sleepiness and the sleep cycle leading to optimal vol-
total sleep is suggested to enhance
improved profile of mood states umes of REM sleep) were identified in
recovery processes and lead to a more
(POMSs). The increased sleep time comparison to a control group of a non-
optimal wakefulness (43). Therefore,
was achieved by altering the subjects athletic population (22). In a group of
because of the linear relationship
academic and training schedules South African athletes, 41 and 60% re-
between REM duration and frequency,
around an extended sleeping period ported difficulty in falling asleep and
and sleep length, it is vital that athletes
rather than sleep being dictated by difficulty in waking up, respectively
maximize the potential for sleep
training and academic scheduling. (42). In addition, among 632 German
Accompanied with an encouragement athletes 32% reported numerous wak-
to achieve minimal 10-hour sleep each ing experiences during sleep and 79%
night with routine sleep and wake reported difficulty in falling asleep on
During sleep, recovery is promoted
times, both sleep journals (470 6 65.9 the night before competition, leading
largely through hormone activity (14).
to 624 6 68.4 minutes) and actigraphy to increased tiredness during the fol-
In addition to acting as an antioxidant,
(400.7 6 61.8 to 507.6 6 78.6) reported lowing day (8). Research has also
melatonin activates other proinflamma-
significant increases in sleep duration. explored the differences between
tory enzymes to neutralize oxidative
Therefore, time management is vital, habitual sleep patterns of individual
radicals which harm cells and promote
particularly for student athletes. To and team athletes (21), indicating that
tissue inflammation (30). Immune
date however, this seems to be the only individual athletes slept and awakened
function is also modulated through
melatonin through both nervous and study to determine the effect of greater earlier and gained less sleep than team
endocrine systems. Finally, melatonin sleep time on athletic performance and sport athletes. However, both sets of
regulates circadian rhythms in response a control group was not included. athletes obtained far less sleep than
to light and dark cycles with low and In addition to extended habitual night the recommended 79 hours per night.
high levels of secretion, respectively time sleep, napping during the day Evidently, athletes commonly struggle
(24). Released within deep sleep (stages has been suggested as a useful tool to with sufficient sleep volume and qual-
3 and 4), growth hormone and andro- enhance recovery processes, notably for ity, effecting training and performance.
gens are both essential for muscle athletes who experience loss of sleep Sleep deprivation effects on perfor-
repair, muscle building, bone growth, during the night (11). A 30-minute mance indicators include reductions
and promoting the oxidation of fats nap between 13.00 and 13.30, after in reaction times, increases in unstable
(3). Sleep promotes the restoration of a night of just 4 hours sleep, leads to im- emotional states (43), and significant
the immune and endocrine systems, provements in alertness and mental and reductions (p , 0.001) in maximal
recovery of the nervous system and physical performance (44). Reported bench-press (29 kg) and deadlift


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(230 kg) performance after just 3 hours the inclusion of sleep as a general com- volume of training load are suggested
of sleep each day for 4 days (31). There- ponent within a readiness to train ques- to sleep for a minimum of 10 hours
fore, a lack of sleep can limit the ability tionnaire identifies various aspects of each night (5), with additional sugges-
to train effectively to enhance strength stress, recovery, and lifestyle elements tions that this should occur for all elite
and power. Because skill training re- in response to daily training. Although athletes regardless of age, who partici-
quires optimal cognitive functioning self-reported methods are useful, al- pate in long training days (35). In light
for learning and memory to consolidate lowing self-reflection from the athlete of this, the athlete should sleep for at
a new skill (9), efficiency of skill training and identifying the areas of concern, least 7 hours and enough to ensure
each day to enhance competition per- they are subjective in nature. sleepiness is avoided during the follow-
formance will be limited because of It is also possible for objective meas- ing training day. To facilitate these ade-
sleep deprivation. Causes of sleep reduc- ures of sleep to be recorded, although quate sleeping hours, routines must be
tion are largely linked with anxiety added cost for use of specific software reached where sleeping and waking
before competitions and 82% of 283 and equipment will be involved. Poly- times are consistent, stimulating the
elite Australian athletes reported sleep somnography is considered as the cri- quality of sleep. Improving sleep qual-
disturbances because of this (18). The terion approach providing information ity reduces sleep latency and enhances
effects of sleep reduction have also been on various aspects of sleep quality transition through the sleep stages,
considered for specific exercises that and quantity, which includes sleep effi- promoting volume of REM sleep and
stress different energy systems. For ciency, total sleep time, number of therefore optimizing recovery and
intermittent sprint efforts, involving awakenings, and time in each sleep wakefulness (43).
anaerobic performance, sleep depriva- stage (12). However, this method re-
tion over 2 consecutive nights resulted AMBIENT CONDITIONS
quires high levels of expertise and is not
in slower sprint times (37). Similarly practical with regard to monitoring A further consideration is the tempera-
for endurance-based performances, sleep specifically for athletes. Actigra- ture of the environment, which influen-
24 hours of reduced sleep resulted in phy is an alternative method involving ces the onset of sleep and the efficiency
decreased aerobic performance over wristwatch devices that monitor body of the sleep stages. Heat exposure leads
a 30-minute period (6,224 6 818 to movement and, accompanied with to greater wakefulness when attempting
6,037 6 759) (27). Ultimately this out- sleep diaries, can sufficiently determine to sleep and reduces time spent experi-
lines the need for athletes, globally, sleep time, sleep-onset latency, wake encing REM (26), supporting an environ-
independent of predominant energy after sleep onset, and the efficiency of ment maintained at room temperature
system used within their sport, to incor- sleep (23). This method proves as a suc- and suitable bedding/clothing to be used
porate a sound sleep strategy to avoid cessful measure of sleep that is nonin- to avoid temperatures that are too hot.
any form of sleep loss. A review of ar- vasive and can collect data for a period Thermoregulation and sleep are strongly
ticles assessing sleep, including mood of 2 weeks (12). linked (40), with the core body temper-
response to sleeping patterns and the ature following a cycle, consistent to that
results of sleep extension and depriva- The use of smartphone sleep apps may of the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle and the
tion on measures of physical and cog- be of some interest due to the ease of circadian rhythm (26). Core temperature
nitive performance, can be found in integration that this may provide to decreases with the onset of sleep while
Table 1. the athletes lifestyle. A recent review the peripheral temperature increases
however on the validity of current apps with greater blood flow to the skin
MEASURES OF SLEEP QUALITY suggests that strong scientific evidence (20), accelerating the onset of sleep,
A common approach to measure sleep is lacking (2), with high variability in (19) and associated strongly with mela-
within a performance setting and be results influenced by phone type and tonin secretion (4). Temperatures above
cost effective is to complete sleep ques- position of the device when record- and below the thermal neutral tempera-
tionnaires. This method is predomi- ing data. ture of 298C may disrupt sleep and
nant in previous research that has prompt awakening (15), identified with
explored sleep deprivation and sleep RECOMMENDATIONS partially clothed subjects. However, the
extension (33), with various question- The amount of sleep athletes require is influence of bed covers and clothing re-
naire types that focus solely on specific commonly regarded as at least 7 hours sults in sleep to be affected more often by
sleep components, such as disturbance, each night (43); however, this figure heat rather than cold exposure (26) and
sleep duration, time for falling asleep will change with each individual ath- because wakefulness is the only sleep
and time for waking up. The Compet- lete. In comparison to nonathletes, ath- stage that can endure thermal increases
itive Sport and Sleep questionnaire and letes require a greater volume of sleep (28), awakening occurs to maintain ther-
the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index are for sufficient recovery to occur as moregulation. Therefore bedding, cloth-
examples that have been implemented a result of high volumes of training ing, room temperature, and humidity
to understand athletes sleep qualities modalities (22). Furthermore, young must be considered to avoid contributing
around competition (18). In addition, athletes that participate in this high to increasing the core temperature of the

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Athlete Recovery

Table 1
Previous research investigating the results of sleep extension and reduction on athlete performance

Reference Intervention Results Conclusion

Juliff et al. 283 elite Australian athletes (129 64% reported worse sleep than Identification of poor sleep patterns
(18) men, 157 women; 24 6 5 y). Two normal before important being common among athletes
questionnaires were completed competition. 82.1% identified during the nights leading up to
on the nights before competition; falling asleep as the main problem, the competition. Highlights
Competitive Sport and Sleep largely because of nervous importance of greater education
questionnaire and the Pittsburgh thoughts regarding competition. necessary to enhance the sleep
Sleep Quality Index. 59.1% of team sport athletes quality in preparation for
reported no strategy to combat important competitions.
this and just 32.7% of individual
athletes used methods to reduce
these effects.
Mah et al. 11 Stanford University basketball Night time sleep increased during Sleep extension identified to directly
(23) players undertook habitual sleep extension period by 110.9 6 enhance sport specific
baseline sleep for 24 wk followed 79.7 min. Sprint times greater performance.
by 57 wk of extended sleep of at following sleep extension (16.2 6
least 10 h each night. Athletic 0.61 versus 15.5 6 0.54) and
performance measured through shooting accuracy increasing by
a timed sprint and shooting 9%. Mean PVT decreased and
accuracy at each training session. POMS improved with sleep
Reaction time monitored with the extension (p , 0.001). ESS
Psychomotor Vigilance Task (PVT), decreased with sleep extension
daytime sleepiness with the (p , 0.01).
Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS)
and mood through Profile of
Mood States (POMS).
Skein et al. 10 male team sport athletes Mean sprint times significantly Sleep reduction leads to muscle
(37) completed a baseline session and reduced between the normal glycogen depletion before
2 consecutive days of trials sleep and no sleep trials (p , 0.05). exercise, contributing towards
separated by a normal nights Muscle glycogen concentration reduced performance and
sleep or no sleep. Each trial was significantly lower after no perception of mood state, or
consisted of a 30-min graded sleep (209 6 60 mmol/kg dry stress.
exercise run and a 50-min weight) in comparison to sleep
intermittent sprint protocol. (274 6 54 mmol/kg dry weight)
Muscle glycogen, voluntary force, before the start of trials (p , 0.05).
POMS, HR and RPE pre and post Sleep loss negatively impacted
each trial exercise. upon POMS (p , 0.05).
Oliver et al. 11 men completed 2 trials separated Less distance was covered after the Sleep deprivation induces negative
(27) by 7 d, one trial post normal sleep sleep deprivation trial (6,037 performance outcomes for
and one trial post 30 h without versus 6,547 m; p 5 0.016) during endurance-based exercise.
sleep. The trial consisted of 30-min the 30-min self-selected pace
treadmill running at 60% VO 2max treadmill run.
followed by 30 min of self-paced
running. Speed, RPE, core and mean
skin temperature and heart rate
were measured during the trials.
Waterhouse 10 men either napped or sat quietly Napping improved alertness, short Implementing the use of napping
et al. (44) as the control group between term memory and reaction time has the potential to increase
13:00 and 13:30 h after a night of (p , 0.05); however, grip strength alertness and physical
just 4 h of sleep. 30 min after nap, was not affected (p . 0.05). 20-m performance after restricted sleep
measures of alertness, short term sprint times improved (3.971 s duration in athletes.
memory, heart rate, reaction time, versus 3.878; p 5 0.013).
grip strength and 20 m sprint time
were taken.


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Table 1
(continued )
Reilly and 8 male subjects (1824) slept just 3 h Sleep loss significantly reduced Sleep loss will have a significant
Percy (31) for 3 consecutive nights after maximal bench press, leg press negative impact on the efficiency
4 d of normal sleep where baseline and deadlift (p , 0.001). All of strength specific training
measures were taken. submaximal lifts reduced because following sleep loss, particularly
Weightlifting exercises were of sleep deprivation, with across several days.
performed which included biceps significance met after the second
curl, bench press, leg press and night of sleep loss (p , 0.01). No
deadlift. Both for submaximal significant reduction in the
(20RM) and maximal (1RM). POMS maximal biceps curl performance
were completed before each test. was observed (p . 0.05).

body and subsequent disruptions of sleep. training day. Another consideration While traveling or at any location
In summary, avoiding a sleeping environ- should be the time of day in which away from the routine sleeping envi-
ment that is too hot is more beneficial for napping occurs; recommendations sug- ronment, the use of eye masks and
maintaining sleep. gest to avoid naps in the late afternoon ear plugs may prove beneficial to fur-
and evening because this will induce ther enhance the ability to fall asleep.
NAPPING negative repercussions on night time Combining this with a routine time to
The use of napping can be imple- sleep routine (44). go to bed each night will prove more
mented to recover sleep debt, when effective. This will also allow opportu-
athletes have had poor night time sleep nity for the athlete to plan his activity
duration and quality. Among previous leading up to sleep, to avoid using
To promote general sleep quality
research, 30 minutes of nap time is con- a computer and watching television
and quantity, it is important to first
sistent to promote cognitive processes for example. This activity should also
adhere to optimal strategies that will
and motor control (44); however, fur- concern the avoidance of caffeine
enhance the processes of falling asleep.
ther time must be considered when ingestion which may result in sleep
Commonly, as discussed above, simple
being implemented into a training day, disturbance during the night (7).
measures are most effective applied in
in order for athletes to fully waken after Lastly, the time of day in which nap-
combination and routinely. When pre-
this period. Various strategies can be ping is used should be limited to no
paring for sleep, a dark room is vital,
implemented to enhance the waking later than midafternoon to avoid inter-
within a cool environment and absent
process after short nap times, including ference with the routine sleep time
of noise (26). Melatonin release is sub-
caffeine use, awakening under bright (44). An additional practical consider-
ject to light and dark sensitivity, so
lights, and washing the face immedi- ation is the use of light upon wakening
its transmission is promoted within
ately after wakening (13). Reportedly, to enhance this process where light has
a dark environment which is important
the most effective strategy is the inges- an inverse relationship with melatonin
because of its sleep promoting effects
tion of caffeine before napping, to release (4), leading to the suppression
(13) and enhancing the speed at which
enhance cognitive processes, measured of this and a more efficient transition
sleep begins. This reduces the potential
through memory and reaction time per- from wakening. Table 2 identifies
of disturbed sleep, most notably for
formance tasks (17). Once ingested, caf- a checklist athletes should meet to
the initial stage which is the lightest
feine is rapidly absorbed, with plasma optimize their sleep.
of the sleep stages, and therefore is
concentrations peaking after 3075 mi- at the greatest risk of disrupting the
nutes and the half-life of a single dose onset of sleep. An additional factor that CONCLUSION
suggested to last 37 hours (32). causes disruption in sleep routine, spe- Sleep deprivation can contribute to
Important considerations therefore are cifically the time in which it takes to poor performance through reduced
necessary regarding length of the nap fall asleep, is anxiety before a competi- motivation and efficiency of cognitive
and time of its occurrence when imple- tion (36) and, of course, training. The processes, increasing perceived effort,
mented in conjunction with caffeine importance of managing this anxiety and limiting physiological recovery re-
use. This method could be considered has been identified, with various pro- sponses. Monitoring the quality and
by athletes, through consuming coffee, tocols suggested to combat the effects quantity of sleep can aid in detecting
for example, before napping during the that anxiety has on sleep quality, from poor sleep patterns and behavior, al-
day to promote rapid and effective goal setting and self-talk (10) to mental lowing for intervention to avoid signif-
recovery post nap, allowing for success- rehearsal and implementing visualiza- icant reductions in health. The use of
ful integration within a structured tion therapy techniques (25). diaries outlining hours of sleep and

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Athlete Recovery

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