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Sleeping Like a Pro

  • September 27, 2021
  • Patients and Families, Sleep Disorders

Athletes and sleep

Athletes are particularly adept at combining mind and body to maximize performance in sport. However, the same does not always apply to performance in sleep. Most researchers and doctors recommend 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night at a minimum, and less than that is considered insufficient sleep. While the overall rate of insufficient sleep in the general population is high, athletes are even more likely to suffer from lack of shut eye. Whether it’s due to traveling, practice schedules, or balancing training with school or work, athletes lag behind the average person when it comes to sleep. According to NCAA surveys of athletes, for example, a staggering 50% of athletes report getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night, and 79% of athletes get less than 8 hours of sleep.

How sleep impacts performance

What’s the big deal? If athletes get a little less sleep, it’s just because they tend to have busier schedules. Obviously, they still perform well, right?

It might not be so simple. Sleep has been implicated in many facets of athletic performance. For example, studies have shown that both short-term and long-term sleep deprivation can lead to decreased ability to focus attention, lower motivation, malfunction of working memory and innovative thinking, and impaired coordination. Long-term sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively impact mood, contributing to or causing things like depression and anxiety. Indeed, at least one study has shown that just 24 hours of sleep deprivation will lead an average person to perform worse at driving tasks than someone who is legally drunk. If you wouldn’t show up to practice drunk or buzzed, it would be wise to optimize sleep to avoid similar deficits.

Regarding athletic performance especially, injury risk increases with chronic sleep deprivation. For example, a study of middle and high school athletes found that adolescents who got less than 8 hours of sleep per night, on average, were 70% more likely to report an injury than those who slept at least 8 hours per night.

What to do about sleep

If you already get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, great. Keep it up and protect your sleep in the future. If you find yourself struggling to get at least that much sleep every night, below are some tips to improve your sleep in order to maximize performance and decrease risk of injury:

  • Do your best to sleep 7-9 hours per day – Whether this means going to bed earlier, sleeping in later, or taking occasional naps, studies suggest that this is one of the best things you can do to maintain and improve athletic performance. This may be hard to accomplish, but it will be important to keep in mind when establishing a daily routine.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule – While this can be difficult with traveling, school, and training schedules, it is important to do your best in this regard. Regular, consistent sleep will help your body settle into a rhythm that will allow for better performance and recovery. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each night, including on the weekends.
  • Have good sleep hygiene routines at bedtime – Being consistent about these methods will help you fall asleep more easily when you get into bed. This means using your bed only for sleep or sex. It also means:
    • avoiding screen time and bright lights for at least 1 hour prior to going to sleep
    • not eating immediately before sleep
    • keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
  • Avoid drug use before bed – This includes caffeine late in the day, as well as alcohol. These substances, as well as many other prescription and non-prescription medications, can interfere with asleep. Caffeine use later in the day can make it more difficult to fall asleep, and alcohol use before bed can make your sleep less restful for your mind and body. Every person reacts differently to caffeine and adjusting your caffeine schedule may require small adjustments that are different for each person. Talk to your doctor if you have questions regarding how other medications you take may be affecting your sleep.
  • If you have mental or other medical problems that are contributing to poor sleep, see a doctor or other mental health professional to discuss next steps.

By John Kutschke,
Medical Student,

Reviewed by Claudia L. Reardon, M.D.,
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry,
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

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