Sleep for Athletes: Needs, Benefits, and How to Get More

If you’re an athlete, you’re probably on a constant quest to boost performance. You’ve got your training program dialed in. You do your best to prioritize nutrition. But how’s your sleep? Sleep is crucial for health, well-being, and performance, and it should be a top priority for athletes.

Sleep is not only integral for recovery and adaptation between exercise; more sleep is also associated with improved performance and competitive success. Better sleep may also reduce the risk of injury and illness in athletes, making them less likely to miss out on valuable practice time. 

In this article, we’ll get into:

  • How much sleep athletes need
  • Athletes’ obstacles to getting enough sleep
  • The performance benefits of sleep for athletes
  • How athletes can improve their sleep

How much sleep do athletes need?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adults need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep for optimal health and well-being. Adolescents usually need closer to 8 to 10 hours. Sleep requirements vary from person to person depending on factors like stress, illness, sleep debt, and genes. Individuals need less and less sleep as they age.

How much you sleep is important, but so is the quality of that sleep. Sleep continuity is an important component of sleep quality. That is, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how many times you wake up throughout the night, and how long you are awake after initially falling asleep. 

Athletes may need more sleep than less active people because of a greater need for recovery and adaptation. Research says they may need 9 or 10 hours of sleep each night.1 

Obstacles to Sleep for Athletes

Despite possibly needing more sleep than less active people, athletes tend to have the same or poorer sleep habits than everyone else.2

So what is stopping athletes from getting enough sleep? Some of the barriers are:2

  • Poor self-assessment about sleep needs
  • Cultural norms about functioning with minimal sleep
  • Training schedules, particularly with early morning training or nighttime competitions 
  • Increases in training load
  • The stress of competition
  • The stress of routine for long-distance travel for competition 
  • Disturbance of circadian rhythms due to travel for competition 
  • Academic pressures for youth and collegiate athletes
  • Medical conditions associated with impaired sleep. Some evidence suggests that sleep-disordered breathing and restless legs syndrome may be more prevalent among athletes than in the general population 
athletes sleep obstacles

Athletic Performance Benefits of Getting Enough Sleep

Maybe you’ve had some sluggish days in the gym lately. Or maybe you don’t even realize the performance boost you would get from getting adequate sleep, since not getting quite enough sleep is normal for you.

Several studies have found that sleep duration and quality are linked to competitive success.2 Below are some of the ways that getting enough sleep can improve athletic performance. 

Improved Reaction Time and Accuracy 

Sleep deprivation can lead to slower reaction times, decreased accuracy, and impaired decision-making. Sleep deprivation impairs accuracy in athletic performance, and sleep extension improves accuracy. For example, a single night of 4 to 5 h of sleep – compared to a full night of sleep– decreased dart throwing accuracy significantly3 and tennis serving accuracy up to 53%.4

The Takeaway: Getting enough sleep can help athletes react faster and more accurately on the field, court, or mat.

Learning and Executive Function

Perhaps the most important consequence of athletes not getting enough sleep is impaired learning.

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect your performance in the moment. It also decreases your ability to learn and get better over time. Sleep is crucial for consolidating memories, which helps us learn. Sleep deprivation is associated with lapses in thinking. Just one night of sleep deprivation also decreases inhibitory control, making us more impulsive and emotionally reactive.5 Of course, this can undermine athletes’ decision-making during competition.

Sleep deprivation also just feels bad. Sleep loss has a negative effect on subjective well-being, making us feel more fatigued, moody, sore, depressed, and confused than usual.6

The Takeaway: Getting enough sleep can set athletes up for optimal learning, thinking, and mood during sports and competition.

Physical Performance and Endurance

Sleep is crucial for muscle recovery and repair. Research has shown that sleep deprivation inhibits endurance. This could be because muscle glycogen stores are lower after sleep deprivation. Unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation is also associated with a higher rating of perceived exertion.2

The Takeaway: Sleeping enough can help ensure that athletes perform at the top of their game.

Reduced Risk of Injury and Illness

If you’re an athlete, injuries and illnesses are probably your worst nightmare. Unfortunately, not getting enough sleep makes them both more likely.2 The risk of injury is even higher when sleep deprivation is combined with an increase in training load. This fateful combination is all too common in training camps and competition prep.

Sleep loss suppresses our immune systems and makes us more susceptible to illness, especially respiratory infections. The combination of sleep loss and stress may make athletes more likely to get sick around competition time.

The Takeaway: Consistently meeting sleep needs can lower the risk of injury and help keep an athlete’s immune system running smoothly.

deep breathing athlete

How Athletes Can Improve Their Sleep

If you feel that the quality of your sleep is poor or that you can’t get enough sleep no matter how hard you try, talk to your doctor about getting screened for medical conditions that could be contributing. This includes insomnia, sleep disordered breathing, restless legs syndrome, depression, anxiety, or other illness.

Barring other health conditions, you can likely improve your sleep by making some tweaks to your “sleep hygiene.” This refers to the environment and daily routines that affect your sleep. 

The Basics of Sleep Hygiene

  • Create a sleep-friendly environment. Make your bedroom cool and dark – your body temperature needs to drop 1-3 degrees to fall asleep. Blackout curtains, eye masks, white noise machines, and earplugs can all help your sleep quality.
  • Establish a consistent sleep routine. Wake up at the same time each day – yes, even on weekends – and go to sleep when you first start to feel sleepy.
  • Start winding down 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. Consider it “treat yourself” time. Read a book, listen to soothing music, or give yourself permission to just do nothing.
  • Manage stress and anxiety. This is easier said than done, but do what you can to reduce stress. You likely know what works best for you, but some avenues to explore are: meditation, deep breathing, taking a bath, and making time for hobbies. Consider seeing a therapist if you are overwhelmed by stress.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed. Do something relaxing in a quiet and dim setting until you feel sleepy again. This helps you associate your bed with sleep – not anxiety or frustration.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol – even though it might feel like it helps you get to sleep, it messes with your sleep cycle.
  • Lay off the caffeine within 8-10 hours of bedtime. People process caffeine differently depending on genes. Experiment with it if you think this might be an issue for you.
  • Don’t scroll on your phone or electronic devices before bed. The blue light can disrupt melatonin production and interfere with your sleep7
  • Avoid viewing bright overhead lights between 10 pm and 4 am. Bright lights of all colors can interfere with your circadian rhythms.
  • If you nap, make it a short one. Daytime naps longer than 90 minutes.

If you’ve tried all of the above suggestions and still aren’t happy with your sleep, then you might need to bring out the big guns. Here are a few more ideas that might tip the balance for you.

Next Level Sleep Tips for Athletes

  • View sunlight within 60 minutes of waking and again in the late afternoon before sunset. Do this outside – not through glass. Don’t look directly at the sun, but try not to wear sunglasses if possible. 
  • Try self-hypnosis. Yes, I’m serious. You don’t have to bust out your pendulum… You can listen to a free sleep self-hypnosis recording, like this one. Research supports hypnosis as a safe and promising treatment for sleep issues.8 
  • Try “non-sleep deep rest” or Yoga Nidra. It may help you learn to relax your body or fall asleep faster. There are plenty of free ones on Youtube, like this one by Dr. Andrew Huberman or this one by RosalieYoga.
cat sleeping

A Cautionary Note on Sleep Trackers

Interest in “optimizing” sleep has skyrocketed in the last several years. Sleep tracking apps for smartphones and wearable devices promise to track the quality and quantity of your sleep in the interest of health. But some sleep experts are concerned that the preoccupation with sleep trackers can backfire and lead to poorer sleep. They’ve proposed a new term, orthosomnia, to describe “a perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimize daytime function.”9

If the thought of improving your sleep tracker data is causing anxiety for you around sleep, it might be time to go back to basics and let your body tell you whether you’ve rested enough.

The Bottom Line

Sleep is critical for general health and well-being as well as athletic performance. Athletes may  need more sleep than the general population, but they likely aren’t getting enough of it. Adequate sleep can boost reaction time and decision making, learning and executive function, and athletic performance. It can also reduce the risk of injury and illness in athletes.

If you’re an athlete and you feel you’re not performing at your best, aim for 8-10 hours of sleep per night. You may improve your sleep by creating a sleep-friendly environment, establishing a consistent sleep routine, avoiding sleep-disrupting habits and substances, and managing stress. But don’t overthink it. Reading too far into your sleep quality can backfire and cause more anxiety around sleep. 

Are you sleeping enough, but still can’t seem to reach your strength or performance goals? Check out this article to see if you’re making any of these 8 strength training mistakes I see BJJ athletes make.


  1. Sleep, Recovery, and Athletic Performance
  2. Sleep and Athletic Performance
  3. Effects of one night of partial sleep deprivation upon diurnal rhythms of accuracy and consistency in throwing darts
  4. Sleep restriction and serving accuracy in performance tennis players, and effects of caffeine
  5. The effects of sleep restriction on executive inhibitory control and affect in young adults
  6. Subjective well-being and training load predict in-season injury and illness risk in female youth soccer players
  7. Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: implications and recommendations for elite athletes
  8. Hypnosis Intervention Effects on Sleep Outcomes: A Systematic Review
  9. Orthosomnia: Are Some Patients Taking the Quantified Self Too Far?
This website or its third-party tools process personal data.
You may opt out by using the link Opt Out