Athletes And Sleep

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SO Athlete and sleep

Most of us are no stranger to the phrase “be sure to get a good night’s sleep” — especially the night before an event that requires us to be at our best, like an important presentation or test (1).

Athletes of all levels are no exception: Getting adequate sleep pays off just as much in our ordinary lives as it does on the field or court, and with 51 percent of surveyed college athletes reporting excessive daytime sleepiness, there may be some work to do how much sleep is prioritized for some athletes (2). Read on to learn how sleep impacts athletes and for some insight from the NBA’s David Roddy on what his relationship with sleep looks like. 

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.

Long Story Short

  • While sleep is imperative to everyone’s overall health and wellness, it’s especially critical for athletes.
  • Poor sleep can not only weaken athletic performance but can also impede and prolong recovery and increase an athlete’s risk of injury and mental health issues.
  • Athletes can improve their sleep by leaning into good sleep hygiene.

Why Is Sleep So Important For Athletes? 

Dr. Chelsie Rohrscheib, head sleep expert and sleep scientist at Wesper, says, “Sleep is essential for many restorative processes in the brain and body, such as cell and tissue repair, immune system strengthening, and hormone release. These processes are smothered by sleep loss, which results in an accumulation of damage to the body over time.” 

When you think about it, no group does more daily damage to their bodies than athletes. At the end of the day, athletes depend on sleep to enhance their training and recovery, reduce their risk of injury, and improve their performance. (3) Beyond its physical effects, sleep can also have a significant impact on an athlete’s mental health. (3)

But even though we know that sleep can affect every aspect of athletic performance, many athletes are falling short when it comes to getting good sleep in comparison to their nonathletic peers. In comparison to nonathletes, athletes may: (4)

  • Sleep less on average 
  • Experience more poor-quality sleep 
  • Are more prone to developing sleep disturbances, such as sleep apnea

Dr. Shane Creado, a board-certified psychiatrist, sleep medicine physician, and author of Peak Sleep Performance for Athletes, tells Sleepopolis, “There are hundreds of studies that have looked at sleep problems in specific sports, specific nations, different levels of sport, and different leagues, which all show the prevalence of sleep problems in athletes and the psychiatric problems that go along with them.”

Creado goes on to highlight some startling findings about athletes and sleep: 

  • In a 2018 study of 628 collegiate athletes from 29 varsity teams, 42 percent experienced poor sleep quality, and 51 percent reported high levels of excessive daytime sleepiness. (5)
  • Student-athletes cite sleep as the number-one thing they miss out on as a result of athletic time commitments. (6)

Student athletes in particular may find that their grades suffer if they don’t get the right amount of sleep, since a lack of sleep has been found to lessen motivation, focus, memory, and learning. (2)

How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance And Recovery

According to Creado, poor sleep can have a staggering effect on athletic performance and almost everything in the athlete’s orbit. (7)

Physically, not getting enough rest can wreak havoc on athletic performance regardless of the sport you play. Creado says sub-optimal sleep may:

  • Impair recovery from a single HIIT session
  • Slow response times
  • Slow sprint times (7)
  • Decrease maximal jump performance
  • Increase injury rates (8)
  • Slow recovery and prolong rehabilitation after injuries
  • Worsen accuracy
  • Lead to exhaustion more quickly

Cognitively, Creado says sub-optimal sleep may:  

  • Increase the perceived training load 
  • Lower psychological resilience
  • Impair team dynamics
  • Shorten playing careers
  • Increase mental and practical errors
  • Reduce motivation to train 
  • Cause steeper learning curves
  • Negatively impact concentration, sustained attention, and decision-making

While we know that sleep can have deleterious effects on athletic performance and recovery, on the other hand, good quality sleep can reduce stress and anxiety and improve focus, which can impact athletic performance. 

Broken down by action, adequate sleep can improve: (7)

  • Sprint times 
  • Tennis serve accuracy 
  • Swim turn and kick stroke efficiency 
  • Swim sprint
  • Basketball shooting accuracy 
  • Half-court and full-court sprints 
  • Time to exhaustion

Athletes And Sleep Disorders 

As a group, athletes typically get less sleep than they need, and what little sleep they get is often of poor quality. (9) Not only do anxiety and stress from competition make it difficult to fall asleep and impair the overall quality of sleep, but the psychological demands of sports can profoundly impact the athlete and their overall health, which can contribute to sleep disorders.

According to multiple studies, athletes are more predisposed to a range of sleep disorders, including obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and insomnia. In one study, more than half of those in the sample reported myriad sleep complaints, with the top three issues being insufficient sleep/waking up tired, snoring, and insomnia. (10)

Another study conducted in 2017 showed that while the prevalence of OSA in the general population is estimated at 2 percent to 5 percent, the number skyrockets to 14 percent to 19 percent among players in the National Football League (NFL). (11) Researchers suggest the very attributes that assist football players in this type of collision sport, such as large body mass indices and wider neck circumferences, are the same risk factors for OSA. (9)

Athletes and Jet Lag

Travel and jet lag are known sleep stealers among competitive athletes because they push athletes out of their natural circadian rhythm—the net effects of which are poor performance and an increased risk of injury. (12) Although cabin conditions, flight altitude, and air cabin oxygen saturation levels may impact the outcome of jet lag, athletes are more likely to experience adverse effects when traveling east or west across three or more time zones.

In 2021, 26 researchers and clinicians came together to form guidelines on managing travel fatigue and jet lag in athletes. Ultimately, the committee devised a list of recommended actions pre-travel, during travel, and post-travel. (12)

Pre-travel, athletes should try to: 

  • Protect their sleep as much as possible
  • Potentially bank sleep (sleep more prior to traveling), though more research is needed to know how effective this can be (13)
  • Catch up on sleep during travel
  • Minimize the time between the last “proper” sleep at the place of departure and the first “proper” sleep at the destination

During travel, athletes should try to: 

  • Sleep as much as possible (use eye masks, earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones if needed)
  • Take naps when appropriate
  • Avoid alcohol completely

Post-travel, athletes should try to: 

  • Sleep
  • Take naps when appropriate
  • Use eye masks, earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones if they can’t sleep at the new destination 
  • Double down on sleep hygiene behaviors (sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet environment, managing screen time)
  • Be strategic about naps and caffeine intake 

Sleep And Mental Health For Athletes 

Between exhausting training schedules, the stress of competition, and travel, an athlete’s sleep schedule can really take a beating. Beyond its effect on their physical health, Creado says poor sleep can also exacerbate mental health issues, including anxiety and depressive disorders. (4)

Given that a competitive athlete faces criticism from a coach, the pressure of performing on the world’s stage—and the intense scrutiny that comes along with it—it’s easy to see how one could contend with a host of stressors that ultimately make that athlete more predisposed to mental health disorders. And let’s not forget that sleep and mental health share a bidirectional relationship. Mental health issues can lead to poor sleep, and poor sleep can exacerbate mental health issues. (9) The longer each one goes unchecked, the more likely we are to see it play out on the field or court. 

Sleep And Sports Injuries

While we know that sleep affects athletic performance, recovery, and mental health, no discussion of sleep and athletes would be complete without examining the relationship between sleep and sports injuries. Study after study has shown that insufficient sleep increases the risk of injury, primarily by creating an environment of impaired recovery after training. (14) (15

Sleep Hygiene Tips For Athletes

With all the physical and mental demands on athletes, the quality and quantity of their sleep is critical. The good news is there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Studies have shown that improving sleep efficiency and duration is as easy as practicing good sleep hygiene

One study, in particular, examined the effect of sleep hygiene on 26 elite female netball athletes. (16) The women underwent one week of baseline sleep monitoring, followed by a sleep hygiene education session and a final week of sleep monitoring. During the sleep education session, the athletes were given suggestions on how to improve sleep hygiene, including maintaining consistent sleep and wake times, optimizing their sleep environment, and avoiding electronics before bed. Ultimately, researchers found that following the sleep hygiene education session, the women showed an improvement in their total sleep time.  

To improve sleep quality and duration, athletes should try to:

Maintain consistent sleep and wake times. By going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (as much as competition and travel schedules allow), athletes can improve their sleep. 

Optimize their sleep environment. A quiet, cool, and dark bedroom environment is key to quality sleep. 

Avoid caffeine and other stimulants before bed. Caffeine has been shown to reduce total sleep time and time spent in deep sleep, so for peak performance, it’s best to limit your daily caffeine consumption and avoid it altogether in the late afternoon and evening. 

Avoid tech and blue light before bed. While exposure to blue light is safe during daytime hours, it can deliver a significant blow to your circadian rhythm when not reduced at night. (17) So, while this may be easier said than done, athletes should try to limit their screen time or avoid it completely for at least one hour before bed. 

Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Relaxing activities like reading, taking a bath, light stretching, or meditation can go a long way toward improving your sleep overall. 

Case Study: David Roddy

When grueling game schedules, frequent travel, and rigorous training collide in professional sports, athletes may find themselves dealing with health and sleep issues more often than they’d like. The NBA’s game schedule, for example, can be particularly hard on the league’s players. The 2024-2024 calendar shows the Memphis Grizzlies playing in their hometown one day and then playing 600 miles away in Houston, TX, two days later. Sleepopolis recently caught up with the Grizzlies’ small forward, David Roddy, to see how he manages his sleep health from day to day. 

Roddy tells us that while he (and the people around him) would prefer he get 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night, it doesn’t always work out that way. “In reality, I get about 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, and that’s a sweet spot for me,” he says. 

Insufficient Sleep

When he doesn’t get enough sleep, Roddy says he can see the impact on his performance the next day. Roddy says, “It doesn’t immediately show, but throughout the workout, through the day, or throughout the game, I find that I’m tired at points where I’m usually not tired, and I can feel it through my entire body.” 

It’s Hard to Sleep After A Game

Well…not so much, says Roddy—it’s really all about timing. Roddy notes that following his first playoff game, he couldn’t sleep at all, “It was a unique experience, and there was a bunch of adrenaline,” he says, so sleep didn’t come easy. Ultimately, Roddy says, “Finding ways to decompress is important for the sleep after a game.” 

Sleep Routines

“My sleep routine is pretty simple,” says Roddy. “I try to stretch before bed because I know it relaxes me and helps my body heal and recover.” The NBA star tells us that taking the time to stretch also has the added benefit of keeping him off his phone, which is by far his “biggest Achilles heel” in his sleep routine. Roddy adds that he tries to lower the lights in his room and darken it even further with blackout curtains, a sleep-expert-approved tip! Regarding his sleep routine, the player tells us, “It’s not perfect, but we’re getting there.” 


What happens if athletes don’t sleep enough?

Athletes put their bodies through a lot. If they don’t get enough sleep, it could affect their performance, impair recovery, and put them at a greater risk for injury and mental health issues.

How does lack of sleep affect the risk of injury in athletes?

Research has shown that insufficient sleep increases the risk of injury, the mechanism of which comes courtesy of impaired recovery after training.

The Last Word From Sleepopolis 

For most athletes, the evidence of a poor night’s sleep is likely to show up first on the leaderboard. But it doesn’t quite end there. Beyond performance, poor sleep can increase an athlete’s risk of injury and impact mental health. Athletes who prioritize their sleep are more likely to reap big rewards on game day—and throughout the season. 


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Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.