Can Improved Sleep Enhance Your Athletic Performance?

For years coaches have told athletes that good sleep can help them perform better. But is there any scientific evidence to prove a link between increased sleep and improved athletic performance? Recently, studies have been able to show tangible improvement for the athlete with better and more sleep, making this old coaches advice a relevant training point.


The Research

Stanford University, a leader in the field of sleep medicine, has begun to investigate the issue of sleep and athletic performance. The following results were obtained during three separate tests of student athletes in various sports:

  • Several of the players on Stanford's basketball team were initially tested in a baseline evaluation on a variety of elements. Afterward they were instructed to sleep as much as possible. After a finite period of time they were retested. Their sprint time and free throw shooting improved dramatically.
  • In the next study, five Stanford University men and women swimmers were allowed to follow their normal sleep routine and tested in three areas for baseline information. The swimmers were then instructed to attempt to sleep 10 hours a day for six to seven weeks and were retested. After the increased amount of sleep, there was a noted improvement of speed over 15 meters, an improved reaction time in getting off the blocks, and an increase in the number of kicks over a distance of 15 meters by five full kicks.
  • The last study was done with the Stanford women's tennis team. The team was initially tested for tennis skills, daytime drowsiness and overall mood following their normal sleep pattern. After the players increased their sleep time, aiming for 10 hours per night for five to six weeks, the players were retested in the same areas. The end result showed there was an improved time in a sprint drill and the hitting accuracy of their service improved from 12 serves to 15 serves. Daytime drowsiness decreased and the overall mood rating scale significantly improved.

Performing with Sleep Debt

Sleep debt, which is simply lost sleep (if eight hours is your normal sleep and you got four hours sleep, your sleep debt will be four hours), can potentially decrease the body's repair and healing time, as much of this is done during sleep. Sleep debt also decreases the body's glycogen storage. Glycogen is the easily accessible stored sugar that is utilized to power your muscles during exercise. Loss of glycogen can affect the performance of athletes, especially endurance athletes. The decreased body healing and lowered glycogen is said to relate to increased cortisol levels and lower levels of growth hormone in the body that occurs with sleep debt.

Dr. Phil Eichling, a specialist in Sleep Medicine at Canyon Ranch Health Resorts, said that peripheral vision can be affected by loss of sleep resulting in slow eye movement. Decreased peripheral vision is a huge competitive disadvantage for athletes.

So what if you stay out late a couple nights in a row? Can you make up for that lost sleep? That's a controversial subject but according to Dr. Eichling, and many of the contemporary sleep experts, the answer is yes. It usually takes at least two days in a row of longer sleep to reverse the initial sleep debt.

Catch Some ZZZ's to Get Your W's (Wins)

To maximize and potentially improve your athletic performance, here are some sleeping tips to follow:

  • Make sleep a priority in your training program.
  • For adolescents and young adults, obtain nine to 10 hours of sleep a night.
  • An adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep at night.
  • Eliminate or significantly decrease caffeine intake (it can limit good sleep and increase the potential for sleep debt).
  • Go to bed and get up the same time daily.
  • Extend your nightly sleep for several weeks before important competitions.

Active logoSee more fitness training tips or find an exercise class

Canyon Ranch pioneered the evolution of wellness lifestyle and has been an industry leader for 30 years. Lead by a team of expert physicians and other health and wellness specialists, Canyon Ranch operates the world's most celebrated collection of life-enhancement properties with the goal to inspire people to make a commitment to healthy living. 

Stephen Brewer is the medical director for Canyon Ranch Health Resorts and co-author of the soon to be released book The Everest Principle -- How to Reach the Summit of Your Life (Hayhouse).


  1. Annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (2007, C Mah, The Effects of Extra Sleep on Mood and Athletic Performance Amongst Collegiate Athletes)


  1. Annual meeting of Associated Professional Sleep Societies (2008, C Mah, Extended Sleep and the Effects on Mood and Athletic Performance in Collegiate Swimmers)


  1. Annual meeting of Associated Professional Sleep Societies (2009, C Mah, Athletic Performance Improvements and Sleep Extension in Collegiate Tennis Players


  1. Phys. Med. Rehabil. Clin. N. Am. (2009 Feb; 20(1); 149-59, Samuels C. Sleep recovery, and performance: the new frontier in high-performance athletes.

Discuss This Article

Follow your passions

Connect with ACTIVE.COM