To reach their extreme levels of performance, we assume that the training and eating habits of the world’s elite athletes are extremely strict. But what about when it comes to sleep? Are there established routines? What time do athletes go to bed? How much sleep do they need? And do team and individual athletes have different habits?

Why is sleep important for athletes: Sleep routines deliver results

Doctors and healthcare specialists working with Olympic athletes and other sports professionals all agree – sleep is absolutely vital if they are to perform at their peak. The connection between how well-rested an athlete is and their physical and cognitive performance is undisputed. 

On one hand, when we’re asleep our bodies repair muscle tissue, top up stamina levels and help us regain general alertness. Moreover, the changes in the heart rate throughout the different stages of sleep promote a healthier cardiovascular system, and the immune system is strengthened to fight off possible infections. On the other hand, quality sleep contributes to improved performance by consolidating memories and improving decision-making – something particularly essential for athletes who play in teams and need to remember tactics and techniques constantly. 

Also, let’s not forget the link between sleep and mental health. Healthy sleep can help overcome unexpected results and frustration, and decrease the risk of developing mental disorders such as depression or burnout.

What’s the best sleep schedule for athletes? Do athletes’ sleep schedules differ from sport to sport?

Triathletes are considered to be one of the toughest groups of sportsmen and women on the planet. They push their bodies to the limit over extended periods of time, setting new benchmarks for physical endurance as they do so. So how do they ensure they are well-rested for both training and competition? 

A study of triathletes revealed some defined patterns. For example, many professional triathletes try to get the same amount of sleep every night, whether they are resting, training or even competing the day after. They also tend to follow a routine with a set bedtime every night rather than an ‘I’ll go to bed when I’m tired’ sleep schedule approach. Within this group, there was also a significant minority who strongly believed in the benefits of power napping, particularly during intensive training or competition weeks.

How does sleep affect athletic performance?

It’s been proven that a better-rested athlete enjoys the following benefits – 

  • The capacity to make fewer mistakes.
  • Better technique.
  • Faster reaction times.
  • Accuracy – for example, as the baseball season progresses and tiredness levels increase, pitching and batting accuracy levels tend to fall. Good sleeping habits can minimise this deterioration.
  • Studies have shown that athletes with better sleep and resting habits suffer fewer injuries.

Logically, while quality sleep leads to positive athletic performance, sleep deprivation contributes to a great number of concerns that negatively affect how an athlete performs, including higher risk of illness, quicker exhaustion, higher likelihood of taking unnecessary risks, and increased mood swings and irritability.

How much sleep do athletes need? – World-class results demand world-class sleep

Interestingly, there is a clear difference between team and individual sports when it comes to how much sleep professional athletes require. 

Research shows that individual sport athletes sleep on average 6.5 hours a night while team sports come in at 7 hours. It was also reported that individual athletes are more prone to taking a nap. Two icons from the modern era of sport would seem to confirm this theory: 

  • Serena Williams, 39 times Grand Slam tennis winner reached her tenth Wimbledon final only 10 months after giving birth – a fact she partly puts down to her unwavering commitment to regular sleep routines, high quality mattresses and pillows and regular daytime naps.
  • From the world of team sports, American football legend Tom Brady likes his 8 hours, going to bed during the season at 8:30 pm (often before his kids) and rising at 5:30 am – and at 39 years of age and still at the peak of his powers, he would seem to have found the perfect sleep method.

It’s not only at elite level that sleep is being leveraged to increase performance levels. A part-time soccer team from England identified the importance of quality rest. By carefully analysing everything from bedroom temperature to body positions when sleeping, each player was given an individual rest plan. The club also went to the expense of having special mattresses and pillows made for each player with their individual characteristics in mind.

As a result, recovery after matches improved exponentially, as did decision-making during games. The new strategy also improved the player’s stamina levels which led to positive results on the field. This culminated when the team managed to turn a 0-3 deficit 15 minutes from full-time into a 4-3 win. Luck? These players and staff might tell you otherwise.

Do naps help athletes recover?

Yes. For both athletes and non-athletes, taking a power nap after a sleepless night or a night of inadequate sleep can be beneficial to recover and feel more rested. Adding a nap into their routine could be especially beneficial for athletes before competitions, a day of traveling to a competition or during an injury. Napping can also supplement athletes’ night-time sleep without compromising their sleep quality. 

Jet lag in athletes

When travelling to different time zones for competitions, athletes’ circadian rhythms are also impacted and, consequently, they may experience fatigue, which contributes to poorer performance and a higher risk of injury. For example, in a study regarding American football players performance, it was found that players in West Coast teams played much better during evening home games than when visiting teams  East coast. 

To avoid and prevent the negative effects of jet lag, athletes prioritise sleep and training with light exposure, adjust meal timing and sensibly use melatonin for jet lag.

How do your own sleeping patterns compare to those of professional athletes? Start today by downloading for free the Sleep Cycle tracking app.