We all need sleep to process and heal from the day, but for athletes sleep is especially crucial in order to recover from rigorous workouts and perform their best. Let’s look at why exactly sleep is so important for athletes:
Athletes need sleep for recovery
It is important for athletes to get not only enough sleep, but quality sleep. During the deep sleep phase, growth hormone is released in our bodies. Its benefits are many, including fat burning, bone building, muscle growth and repair – all of which are essential in helping athletes recover from rigorous workouts and build stronger bodies. Inadequate sleep duration and quality (not getting into a deep sleep) slows the release of the growth hormone (source).
Lack of sleep also results in elevated cortisol levels in our bodies, which causes stress – which in turn disrupts sleep and hence interferes with the muscle recovery process. In order to combat this endless stress cycle, it is necessary to get more sleep on a consistent basis.
Athletes need sleep to perform better
Our bodies rely on glucose and glycogen for energy. When sleep deprived, they are slower to store glycogen, which results in less fuel for us to use. While this may not impact the average person, it is detrimental to endurance athletes who need a full storage of energy to get through high intensity workouts and competitions.
What’s more, our glucose metabolism also slows down when we don’t get enough sleep. So not only are we unable to store enough glucose to endure rigorous physical activity, we’re also slower to break down this glucose into usable energy, resulting in sluggishness and impaired cognitive function (source).
Sleep deprivation is detrimental to athletes
The evidence is tangible. According to this infographic by Fatigue Science (source):
- A lack of sleep over the course of 4 days has been shown to cause an athlete’s maximum bench press to drop in weight by 20 lbs (9 kg)
- Tennis players getting adequate sleep can experience up to a 42% increase in hitting accuracy
- Swimmers getting more than adequate sleep can have up to a 17% improvement in reaction time when starting a race
Further, there’s evidence that getting more than the recommended amount of sleep contributes to better athletic performance. A study conducted on the Stanford University NCAA basketball team from 2005-2008 showed that when players extended their sleep, they sprinted faster, reacted faster, and were more accurate in shooting, which suggests that “peak performance can only occur when an athlete’s overall sleep and sleep habits are optimal” (source).
As the evidence for sleep continues to accumulate, professional athletes are beginning to take sleep even more seriously these days. A recent study revealed that pro sports teams performed better in competition when they skipped their early morning practice in favor of sleeping in and instead practiced just once a day. Several NFL and NBA teams in the US have since altered their practice schedules to allow their athletes to get more sleep (source). And some of the most famous and successful athletes (e.g. Roger Federer, Lebron James) are known to spend nearly half of each day sleeping! (source)
The Bottom Line
Athletes need sleep to succeed in their sport and fitness endeavors. If you’re looking to exceed your fitness goals, getting both higher quality deep sleep and more hours of sleep each night will help you immensely.