We've known for some time that sleep is one of the fundamental pillars of performance. It enhances training effect, recovery, skill acquisition, mood, concentration, and injury resistance.
Without adequate sleep, athletes significantly underperform and are at much higher risk of injury . Athletes therefore need to embrace the performance boost afforded to them by good quality, restful sleep. Sleep is a passive performance boost, meaning it takes no effort at all from the athlete but is extremely restorative.
In this article we'll assess the research around sleep best practice and make recommendations to ensure athlete are making the most of this important performance enhancer.
Time to read: 5 minutes
- How much do athletes need?
- Sleep quality - meaning
- Impact of Infrared on athlete sleep
Sleep is a foundation stone of athletic performance and recovery - Enhancing the quality and quantity of your sleep will make you a better, more robust athlete. Follow these simple, evidence-based tips to improve your sleep for good...
Sleep – how much do athletes need?
What we know from expert analysis is that there really is no ‘one size fits all' recommendation here . The general consensus is that we all (elite athletes included) need 7 or more hours of good quality sleep every night.
Beyond that, the waters get a bit muddy.
There's no perfect amount of sleep. We can have shorter, high-quality sleep that leaves us feeling refreshed, or longer sleep with lots of disturbances that leave us feeling tired. The suggestion therefore is that quality is far more important than quantity.
With athletes at a particularly high risk of sleep disorders, poor sleep hygiene and low-quality sleep, we need to dig deeper into sleep quality so we can understand what it means and how we can improve it.
We can hypothesise that athletes need more sleep because of their high training loads, exposure to stress (competition is stressful) and frequent time-zone crossings, but research seems to remain constant, suggesting the 7-9 hours is sufficient to bring about proper recovery in athletes.
Sleep quality – what does that mean?
Unfortunately, there is a no solid measure of sleep quality according to the experts – it's something that is yet to be universally agreed on. Sleep researchers rely on questionnaires, so the results of ‘sleep quality' test are subjective . Lab results can show periods of wakeful, time taken to sleep etc, but that's not necessarily good quality data.
We know that athletes are at a higher risk than most of suffering from poor sleep quality. This is due to several factors…
- Extended states of arousal (adrenaline remains high for hours post-competition)
- High stress levels
- Regular travel across multiple time zones
- Lack of sleep environment stability (multiple nights in different locations)
- Irregular competition times – competitions can start early morning or late at night
Unfortunately, these points aren't going to go away – they're part and parcel of competitive sports.
When studied in relation to evening competition (a common feature in the professional sport), sleep deprivation is proven to have a biochemical impact on recovery . Players who are unable to sleep effectively post evening competition display higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who sleep properly. This is known to significantly increase the risk of musculoskeletal injury .
Furthermore, we know from research that you can't simply ‘shift' a sleep cycle by a couple of early morning wake ups, so consistency remains a key point for a sleeping pattern. Sticking to a regular sleep regime is important .
There is some early research into a concept known as ‘sleep banking', where essentially you make sure you get some really good quality sleep which will allow you to absorb short periods of low-quality sleep. Whilst I wouldn't be willing to recommend it, some of the findings suggest it could be a good option for times when sleep may be compromised .
The impact of infrared on athlete sleep
Even allowing for issues around sleep hygiene for athletes, we can make recommendations to athletes to try and maximise their sleep quality and quantity. One of these recommendations is the use of infrared clothing for sleeping in.
When infrared technology is introduced to an athlete's sleep there's a statistically significant increase in sleep quality, with marked improvements in mood and reduced napping noted . These results are echoed in this study , where there was a reduction in through-the-night waking and a 2.6% improved sleep efficiency.
Sleep regime for athletes – the recommendations
We have to make our peace with the disturbed nature of sleep of an athlete and make a plan to mitigate the negative effects. Based on the evidence discussed today, here's a series of steps athletes and coaches can take to make the sleep habits of athletes better more effective…
- Aim for a minimum of 7 hours sleep. More isn't always better, so try to ensure good quality sleep by making the bedroom comfortable, as dark as possible and by avoiding screen time before sleep.
- Keep to a regular sleep cycle where possible. Trying to ‘phase-shift' sleep cycles doesn't appear to be effective according to research.
- Take advantage of times when sleep is good by ‘banking' sleep – it's not a perfect solution, but some research suggests it can help.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol ahead of bedtime – both are known to impact sleep quality and quantity.
- Wear infrared clothing to bed. Research shows it improves sleep efficiency and sleep quality.
Sleep and athletic performance go hand in hand, so taking steps to ensure you have the best quality and optimum quantity of sleep will be enormously beneficial to your performance, recovery and injury resistance.