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How sleep affects athletic performance?

(And some practical takeaways on how to get a deeper, more restful sleep)

Maximising your performance isn’t just about the training process, Your recovery plays an equally important part in making sure you achieve your athletic goals. A fine balance between training and recovery can reduce feelings of fatigue, reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs), decrease the likelihood of injury and ultimately, improve performance.

Many recovery protocols have have been proposed to aid in the recovery process, there are many fancy, flashy ways that companies like to advertise their new recovery method/protocol, however they all pale in comparison to the power of sleep.

Before we start on the importance of sleep you need to make sure you are not exceeding your maximum recoverable volume (MRV). In simple terms, this the the maximum amount of volume/workload in your training that you can recover from. If you exceed this MRV threshold, then no amount of sleep, (or any other recovery modality for that matter ,will make up for it).

This is a pretty boring topic but if your workload in the gym exceeds your ability to recover, no amount of ‘recovery practices’ will counteract the ‘damage’ you have created. Good recovery protocols can allow you to train with more workload but there is still a limit to what you are able to recover from.


Chronic lack of sleep can have effects on your physical and mental health so it is not a surprise that it can decrease your strength in the gym.

A study by Reilly and Piercy, 1994 investigated the effects of 3 hours sleep for 3 nights on a range of different movements. Leg press and deadlift strength dropped considerably after the first night and continued to drop over the next 2 days. Bench press strength also dropped significantly after 3 days of sleep deprivation. No significant drop in strength was seen in bicep curls

Sleep deprivation may impact, larger compound movements more than smaller ‘isolation’ movements

A similar study by Brotherton et al.,2019 exposed participants to 2 nights of 3 hours sleep. Again, with big reductions in strength in the bench press (11.2% loss in average power) leg press (5.7% loss in average power) and a 2.7% decrease in handgrip strength. An interesting part of this study is that the inclusion of a power nap before training when sleep deprived minimised the reductions in performance.

These studies just scratch the surface on the amount of research on sleep and resistance training, but hopefully you now recognise the potential impacts of sleep deprivation.

How to optimise your sleep

There are many reasons an athlete may become sleep deprived. Some common examples include: disturbed sleep due to late training sessions, excessive or late caffeine usage and the disruption to usual sleep routine (regular travelling, noise etc). Psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety have also been linked with poor sleep quality.

Here are a few suggestions that I think will give you some benefits right off the bat.

Sleep extension and napping

I have come across a couple of studies that observe improved sporting performances when increasing the duration of sleep. The participants in Mah et al., all had to spent a minimum of 10 hrs in bed each night (average sleeping duration of the participants went from 6.6hrs per night to 8.4hrs per night).

The study showed improvements in sprint times, throwing accuracy, reaction times and mood state in athletes who were consistently getting more sleep over 5 to 7 weeks.

A similar study compared a 1-week habitual sleep routine with a 1-week sleep extension in tennis players. The sleep extension group were instructed to spend a minimum of 9hrs per night in bed, naps were also encouraged. Serving accuracy significantly increased alongside a reduction in daytime sleepiness.

Increase your sleeping times

Athletes getting <7hrs per day will most likely receive the greatest benefits in sleep extension

The sweet spot for athletes tends to be around 9-10 hrs sleep per night

Aim to get as close to this range as you can on a consistent basis

If it is not possible for you to sleep for that long, the second best option is to incorporate naps into your daily routine.

Taking a <20 minute nap can increase alertness and motivation.)

Some research suggests that ingesting caffeine immediately before a nap can increase alertness more than subjects who were given only coffee, or a nap without caffeine.

How to take a caffeine nap

Drink your favourite caffeinated beverage immediately before a nap. Ensure the nap doesn't last longer than 20 minutes , this is to avoid waking up within the deeper stages of sleep which can lead to grogginess, irritability etc. You should wake up with some extra drive for your session. Experiment with caffeine dosages and see what best suits you, I would start with a small cup of coffee.


Experiment with different times throughout the day, a well timed nap should not interfere with nighttime sleep quality.

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is a set of behavioural or environmental recommendations that are used to promote improved quality and duration of sleep.

Recommendation 1: Reduce caffeine intake

It is well recognised caffeine can interfere with sleep. A study by Drake, Roehrs, Shambroom and Roth, 2013 showed that 400 mg of caffeine, taken 6 hours before bed disrupted sleep. Caffeine reduced sleep duration by a full hour!

It is recommended that you don't consume caffeine for a minimum of 7 hours before bed.

Recommendation 2: Reduce alcohol intake

Alcohol use before bedtime can have a detrimental effect on sleep quality. Alcohol can make it easier to enter the first stage of sleep, however can increase the amount of times you wake during the night (Park et al., 2015), which can affect the deep, restful stages of sleep.

There is currently no strict advice for recommendations on the amount of alcohol that will disrupt sleep. However the negative effects on sleep are smaller when consuming (1-3 standard drinks) then when consuming moderate and large amounts of alcohol (Ebrahim, Shapiro, Williams and Fenwick, 2013).

Recommendation 3: Manage stress levels

Stress is a state that can cause both physiological and psychological disturbance -common responses include increases in blood pressure, heart rate, nervousness and irritability.

Manys studies have shown an association between stress and sleep quality, (Kim and Dimsdale, 2007)

Finding ways to decrease your stress through the day and particularly before bed time may improve your sleep quality.

One that has helped me is the inclusion of a 10-15 minute mindfulness meditation before bed.

A couple studies highlight the benefit of mindfulness before bed. Improved sleep and perceived stress improved considerably within these studies (Caldwell, Emery, Harrison and Greeson, 2011)

I use headspace... An easy to use app that has a vast range of meditations that focus on sleep, anxiety to sport performance.

Recommendation 4: Reduce the exposure of light before bed

Evening bright light exposure (room lighting, phone/television lighting etc) can limit the production of melatonin. A hormone which promotes feelings of sleepiness (Gooley et al., 2011).

If you still want to use your computer or phone within an hour or two before bed then an app called f.lux is very useful. It is a free app that uses ‘warmer’ colours at night to reduce the mental stimulation and eye strain associated with ‘blue light’ at night time. Blue light exposure (computer and phone screens) has been linked with increased sleep disruption compared to ‘regular’ light.

Also ensure that your bedroom is as dark as possible. Cover up any lights or electronics and consider using blackout curtains to create an optimal sleeping environment.

Recommendation 5: Daytime light exposure

Bright light during the day, particularly in the morning increases serotonin (hormone for mood regulation) and suppresses melatonin during the day. This helps us get in a good sleep/wake cycle, we feel energetic during the day and sleepy close to bedtime. (keeping bed time/wake up time within 30 minutes each day also strengthens the sleep wake cycle)

It is suggested we get 10-30 minutes of sunlight per day however that is not possible for many of us due to work or climate. Inadequate exposure to light is linked with seasonal affective disorder - a form of depression that is linked with less exposure to sunlight- particularly in the winter months.

Consider buying an artificial sun lamp/ SAD lamp. A 10000 LUX lamp can give you adequate sunlight exposure within 30 minutes. They are portable and fairly cheap so they are a good investment.

Here is a review on the effectiveness of light therapy on mood disorders.(Golden et al., 2005)

Recommendation 6: Limit noise pollution

Noise during the later hours can impact sleep quality. Whether it be local traffic or your neighbours music it can result in lighter sleep. (Basner and McGuire, 2018)

Consider investing in some gel earplugs. They are comfortable when you sleep, block background noise but you will still be able to hear your alarm.


Implement some of these strategies and see how it helps your sleep, performance and general wellbeing


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