Sleep and Athletic Performance

If there was a pill that could make you happier, smarter, stronger, less likely to be injured, improve basketball shooting percentage by 9% and tennis serving accuracy by 24%, would you take it? Surely that would be the most expensive pill ever created, but what if it were free?

Sleep loss is increasingly common among teenagers due to things like smart phones, laptops, TV, and energy drinks, and as few as 20% of teenagers may be getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep per night (1). Sleep loss is not only associated with increased body weight, but a recent study found that one-third of students have even reported falling asleep in school (1,2).

So how does this relate to sports?


Here are three of the all-time greats who clearly recognize the importance of sleep (3-5). But let’s not just take their word for it, what does the scientific research have to say?

Let’s start with injuries, because you can’t even play if you’re injured. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference showed that teenage athletes who slept eight or more hours per night were 68% less likely to be injured than athletes who regularly slept less (6).


To study sleep and athletic performance, the Stanford men’s basketball team spent six weeks getting as much sleep as they could, with a goal of being in bed at least 10 hours each night (7). Not surprisingly, their performance benefited. They had faster sprint times, a 9% improvement in 3-pt and free throw shooting percentage, along with improved physical and mental well-being during practices and games.

A similar study was done at Stanford on the women’s tennis team (8). Players felt better, were able to sprint faster, had less fatigue, and their serving accuracy increased by 24%!

We’ve seen that sleeping more can improve performance, but how about when we don’t sleep enough? After just one night of sleeping only five hours there was a 30% decrease in tennis serving accuracy (9). What’s even more interesting is that they were also given caffeine and studied, but caffeine did not prevent the decline in accuracy. So even though you think you can go to bed late and have a coffee in the morning, your performance will still suffer!

The importance of sleep is seen across all sports, and the U.S. Olympic team members are encouraged to sleep for 9-10 hours per night (10).

“Sleep is huge in my sport. Recovery is the limiting factor, not my ability to run hard. I typically sleep about eight to nine hours a night but then I make sure to schedule 90 minute ‘business meetings’—aka naps—into my day for an afternoon rest.” — Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall (11)

Sleep is also vital for your brain-power! Sleeping 6 hours per night for two weeks can result in cognitive decline equivalent to staying up for two nights in a row, and people are largely unaware of these deficits (12). This means you can’t tell when your lack of sleep is even affecting you! A lack of sleep also signals your brain to consume more food while burning fewer calories. Research has shown a 24% increase in hunger after sleep restriction, with appetite for sweets being increased the most (13). Sleep also has profound effects on our hormones. Even in healthy people, sleep restriction to 5 hours per night for just one week can lower testosterone by 10-15% (14).


Okay, so now that you’re ready to sleep more, how do you do it?

  1. Make sleep a priority – commit to getting enough sleep, this could mean doing your homework during the day or setting your DVR to record your favorite shows and watching them on the weekend, etc.
  1. Dim the lights at night – when you’re in bright lights your body still thinks it’s daytime. Try dimming the lights in your house and you will start feeling tired earlier.
  1. Dim the screens – turn down the brightness on your laptop, and download the free program flux, which slightly changes the color on your laptop at night to make it easier on your eyes. Blue blocker glasses are also a great thing to use.
  1. Turn off the screens – staring into TV and computer screens makes your body think it’s daytime (though installing ‘flux’ does help). Try having a TV/laptop turn-off time of 9 pm, and spend the rest of the night reading (with just a desk lamp), doing homework, or listening to music.
  1. Sleep in a completely dark room – even dim lights from the street, TV, or cell phones can affect the quality of your sleep, so do your best to make it as dark as possible.


How much sleep do you need?

It certainly is different for everyone, but there are a few easy guidelines to follow. You should be able to wake up naturally (without an alarm). I talk to so many people who think they’re getting enough sleep, but then laugh when I ask if they’re able to wake up without an alarm (or multiple alarms). During periods of athletic training your needs will increase, so for teenage athletes this could mean at least 9-10 hours per night. Naps are also a good thing if you can find the time.

Remember there is a difference between athletes and football players (or soccer/ tennis/ hockey players), and that is, athletes do what’s necessary to prepare to win their sport. This involves doing things besides just playing your sport. Things like working out, eating right, and sleeping enough all contribute to a successful season.



  1. Calamaro CJ, Mason TB, Ratcliffe SJ. Adolescents living the 24/7 lifestyle: effects of caffeine and technology on sleep duration and daytime functioning. Pediatrics. 2009;123(6):e1005-1010.
  2. Mitchell JA, Rodriguez D, Schmitz KH, Audrain-McGovern J. Sleep duration and adolescent obesity. Pediatrics. 2013;131(5):e1428-1434.
  3. Federer. Sleep quote. http://ruansfedererblog.com/awesome-federer-interview/.
  4. Phelps. Sleep quote. http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2008/aug/14/michaelphelps.swimming1.
  5. Nash. Sleep quote. http://archive.mensjournal.com/steve-nash-on-sleeping-easier.
  6. Milewski M, Pace, J., Ibrahim, B.A., Bishop, G., Barzdukas, A., Skaggs, D. Lack of Sleep is Associated with Increased Risk of Injury in Adolescent Athletes. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition. 2012.
  7. Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep. 2011;34(7):943-950.
  8. Mah CD, Mah, K.E., Dement, W.C. Athletic performance improvements and sleep extension in collegiate tennis players. Sleep. 2009;32:A155.
  9. Reyner LA, Horne JA. Sleep restriction and serving accuracy in performance tennis players, and effects of caffeine. Physiol Behav. 2013;120:93-96.
  10. USOC sleep recommendations. http://espn.go.com/espn/commentary/story/_/id/7765998/for-athletes-sleep-new-magic-pill.
  11. Ryan Hall sleep quote. http://www.onemedical.com/blog/newsworthy/sleep-lessons-olympians/.
  12. Van Dongen HP, Maislin G, Mullington JM, Dinges DF. The cumulative cost of additional wakefulness: dose-response effects on neurobehavioral functions and sleep physiology from chronic sleep restriction and total sleep deprivation. Sleep. 2003;26(2):117-126.
  13. Spiegel K, Leproult R, L’Hermite-Baleriaux M, Copinschi G, Penev PD, Van Cauter E. Leptin levels are dependent on sleep duration: relationships with sympathovagal balance, carbohydrate regulation, cortisol, and thyrotropin. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004;89(11):5762-5771.
  14. Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Effect of 1 Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy Men. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 2011;305(21):2173-2174.


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