How Much Sleep Do Athletes Need? What the Science Says
If you’re going to reach your full potential as an athlete, there are a few boxes you absolutely have to check.
Obviously, it’s important that you eat a diet designed to support athletic performance.
You also need to build the muscles your sport requires and stick to an effective stretching regimen so you don’t end up injured.
And, in my personal opinion, you should probably wear a fashionable pair of running sunglasses, too.
But one crucial ingredient that many athletes tend to overlook is getting enough sleep.
Just how much sleep do athletes need?
I’ll get to that in a moment, but chances are that you’re probably not getting enough.
According to the CDC, 1 in 3 Americans don’t get enough sleep. If you’re an athlete who regularly pushes their body to the brink, you’re a lot more likely to fall into this category as you probably need more rest than others.
If you think you may be one of the many athletes who doesn’t get enough sleep, I’m going to cover why sleep is so important in the first place, signs you’re not getting enough, how much sleep you should be getting, and some best practices for getting enough of it.
How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance (Backed by Scientific Studies)
Hopefully, it goes without saying that sleep is very, very important for both your physical and mental wellbeing.
But here’s a great quote from Casey Smith, the Head Athletic Trainer for the Dallas Mavericks, that really sums up why sleep is so critical for athletes – just as important as anything you do in the weight room, kitchen, or at practice.
“If you told an athlete you had a treatment that would reduce the chemicals associated with stress, that would naturally increase human growth hormone, that enhances recovery rate, that improves performance, they would all do it. Sleep does all of those things.”
Still, if you’d like some actual science to weigh in on the matter, I’ll quickly share a few studies that prove you simply can’t hope to do your best on the court, track, or field if you’re not doing the same in your bed.
First, this study on the effects of extending sleep on tennis-serve accuracy found that college athletes who increased their sleep time by two hours a night saw a noticeable improvement in the accuracy of their serves – from 35.7% to 41.8%.
Assuming you play a sport where cognition matters, getting plenty of sleep could easily give you a competitive advantage.
A similar study looked at how sleep impacted college basketball players and, once again, found that athletes performed significantly better after getting more sleep:
“Subjects demonstrated a faster timed sprint following sleep extension…Shooting accuracy improved, with free throw percentage increasing by 9% and 3-point field goal percentage increasing by 9.2%...Subjects also reported improved overall ratings of physical and mental well-being during practices and games.”
When you think of how hard many athletes work improve their performance even marginally, just getting a little more sleep should be a no-brainer. It’s an easy shortcut to dramatically improving your results.
Finally, sleep isn’t just vital for achieving your best athletic outcomes. It’s also critical for avoiding the worst-case-scenarios, too.
In a study that looked at sleep deprivation in adolescent athletes, researchers concluded that, “…hours of sleep per night and the grade in school were the best independent predictors of injury.” Those who got less than 8 hours of sleep a night were 1.7 times likelier to get injured.
Therefore, even if you think you’re already at the top of your game, getting enough sleep is still a requirement. It literally shows one of the strongest correlations with injuries. So, fail to get enough sleep and you may soon find you’re unable to play your favorite sport.
Those are just a few of the many studies that connect sufficient sleep with athletic performance, but I’ll link to plenty of others you might find interesting at the end of this blog post.
However, I want to highlight just one more before moving on because you may be one of the many athletes who thinks they’re already getting plenty of sleep. Unfortunately, I found a study that looked at athletes’ sleep habits and concluded that “…athletes have been found to demonstrate poor self-assessment of their sleep duration and quality.”
That’s why you may need more sleep even though you think you’re already getting enough.
And that’s why I want to cover some of the common signs to look out for because they mean you’re an athlete who isn’t getting enough sleep.
4 Signs You’re an Athlete Who Isn’t Getting Enough Sleep
Let’s first begin by looking at how much sleep do athletes need.
According to that last study I just linked to:
“It has been suggested that athletes may require more sleep than nonactive individuals to allow for adequate recovery and adaptation between bouts of exercise, perhaps requiring closer to 9 or 10 h of sleep instead of the 7- to 9-h general recommendation for adults.”
So, if you’re an athlete, getting 9-10 hours is probably a good goal, especially after training sessions that take you past your normal level of exertion.
But even the authors of that study admit that this is just an estimate, which is why I recommend you look for some telltale signs that your current sleep schedule isn’t supporting your goals as an athlete.
- Subpar Athletic Performance – As we’ve already covered, adequate sleep is related to performing at your best. So, if you’re struggling, you’re probably an athlete who needs more sleep.
- Drifting from Your Diet – Most athletes have a fairly easy time sticking to their diets because they know how big a role nutrients play in doing their best. However, a lack of sleep can trick your brain into craving less-desirable dietary options like junk food. If you’re deviating from your diet, getting a lack of sleep may be the problem.
- Trouble with Your Weight – Making matters worse, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body tends to hold tight to its stores of fat. This can be a big problem for athletes who either compete in weight classes or need to be able to maneuver their entire bodies with ease (i.e., gymnasts). Before cutting calories, try adding more sleep to your nights.
- Your Mental Game Isn’t There – Lastly, if you’re having trouble concentrating throughout the day, experience mood swings, struggle to “clear the fog” in the morning, or are feeling depressed, poor sleep could be the culprit. You’ll feel much sharper when you start going to bed a bit earlier.
These are just the basic telltale signs. If none of them ring true, but you worry that how much sleep you’re getting isn’t enough to support your athletic goals, consider speaking with a sleep doctor about your situation.
5 Ways to Get the Sleep You Need as an Athlete
That said, there are a few simple steps you can take in the meantime to increase how much sleep you get as an athlete.
- Go to Sleep at the Exact Same Time: As an athlete, so much of your life is a schedule that this one should be fairly easy. Whenever you decide bedtime is, you want your body to start shutting down in anticipation for it long before you actually lie down. The only way to do this is by sticking to the same time night after night.
- Get into a Routine That Promotes Sleep: There are other habits you can get into that will help promote better sleep, too. For example, many people find it helps to read before bed to calm their minds. Avoiding screens for 2-3 hours before going to bed may also go a long way toward helping you fall asleep faster. Pick a routine and then stick to it.
- No Napping After 3pm: There’s nothing wrong with the occasional nap, especially if you find it helps you get through the day or prepare for practice. However, if you take them after 3pm – or for longer than 20 minutes – you might find it’s difficult to fall asleep later.
- Avoid Stimulants Late in the Day: For the same reason, don’t drink coffee or use any pre-workout in the afternoon, either.
- Try to Eat Light Before Bed: This can be tough depending on your schedule as an athlete and your diet, but try your best to avoid big meals close to bedtime as digesting the food may interfere with your body’s ability to fall asleep.
The Final Word on How Much Sleep Athletes Need
As I touched on earlier, there’s no specific answer to the question, “How much sleep do athletes need?”
But it’s probably at least 8 hours if not 9 or 10 depending on how hard you push yourself.
My advice is to experiment a bit with going to sleep earlier and seeing how that affects your athletic performance. If you still struggle to fall asleep, try supplementing with magnesium or GABA.
And as I mentioned before, if you’re interested in doing some further reading on the relationship between sleep and athletic performance, here are some other studies you can peruse:
- Effects of training and competition on the sleep of elite athletes
- The effect of partial sleep deprivation on weight-lifting performance
- Sports-related injuries in youth athletes: is overscheduling a risk factor?
- Sleep prior to and following competition in professional rugby league athletes
- Studies Link Fatigue and Sleep to Major League Baseball (MLB) Performance and Career Longevity
- The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation
- Ongoing Study Continues to Show that Extra Sleep Improves Athletic Performance
- Effects of sleep deprivation on cardiorespiratory functions of the runners and volleyball players during rest and exercise
- The effect of sleep deprivation on choice reaction time and anaerobic power of college student athletes