How does sleep affect high performance athletes?


By Shawn Youngstedt, PhD

Anecdotally, many athletes and coaches state that sleep is crucial for athletic performance and recovery from exhaustive and muscle-damaging exercise. However, there is little empirical evidence that even extreme amounts of sleep loss impair performance in elite athletes.  Studies in this area have had numerous limitations, including: (1) athletes who are truly intolerant of sleep loss are less likely to volunteer for sleep deprivations experiments; (2) studies have generally not explored skills that involve cognitive function, which could be more sensitive to sleep loss; and (3) studies have involved short-term manipulations of just 1-3 days.

It seems likely that chronically poor or inadequate sleep over a season would impair performance. This might be particularly evident for athletes who train both in the early morning and afternoon, but have a delayed circadian system, which makes it difficulty to obtain adequate sleep amounts for these athletes.  Frequent exposure to jet lag over a season is another problem for many athletes. Moreover, sleep apnea is common in some athletes with large body masses and neck sizes. Both sleep loss and intensive training have been associated with a higher incidence of illness and injury, so the combination of these factors could be detrimental to athletes. Ironically, sleep impairment is one of the most reliable indicators that an athlete is training too hard and/or resting/sleeping too little to adapt to intensive training.



Blumert PA, Crum AJ, Ernsting M, Volek JS, Hollander DB, Haff EE, Haff GG. The acute effects of twenty-four hours of sleep loss on the performance of national-caliber male collegiate weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2007; 21(4):1146-54.