Elite Athletes and Sleep: How Damaging Are Sleep Deficits?

8/28/2023 6 min. reading

Sleep is crucial for humans to function. It’s even more important for elite athletes. For those who need to be at peak physical and mental condition, not getting enough sleep, or too much poor-quality sleep, can cause a sleep deficit, and this is proven to have a direct impact on performance. 

Whether an athlete gets enough sleep can make all the difference between a team winning or losing a game. 

We spend 30% of our entire lives sleeping, and “it is physiologically vital that we spend about a third of our lives unconscious,” says numerous scientific studies

Sleeping is like breathing, eating, and drinking. If you don’t sleep — or don’t get enough sleep — you can’t function properly. 


The Performance-Sleep Connection for Athletes 

In an XPS book review of Inconvenient Sleep: Why Teams Win and Lose, authors Pat Byrne and Suzanne Byrne explained the massive impact sleep (or lack thereof) has on athletes and athletic performance. 

Numerous studies into this have been done, and the link between performance and sleep is well documented. Ten years ago, Craig Pickering, a former professional athlete in both track (100m) and bobsled, having competed in the Summer and Winter Olympics, wrote an article that’s still being cited and mentioned on the impact of sleep and performance

One of these studies, conducted in 2017, that contained a peer-reviewed breakdown of 37 other studies into athletes and sleep, found that: “elite athletes typically have a lower sleep efficiency, spend more time in bed, experience greater sleep fragmentation, and take longer to fall asleep than non-athletes.” 

Athletes “also tend to experience sleep disturbances, with ranges of 13-70% reported in studies.” There’s an indication that women have slightly worse sleep than men. 

The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) is one way to measure sleep performance. It’s far more detailed and accurate than anything the average biometric monitor records, such as a Fitbit. 

Based on PSQI research, “as many as 60% of athletes report disordered sleep, and up to 26% of athletes experience highly disturbed sleep.” 

In the run up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the Australian Institute of Sport conducted a wide-scale review of sleep, health, and other performance indicators in athletes and found that there were “strong relationships between increased levels of stress and poor sleep—defined as lower sleep quality, increased sleep disturbances, or increased time to fall asleep. In addition, in the same group of athletes, over 50% scored above 5 on the PSQI, which is indicative of poor sleep.” 

As we can see, the evidence is clear: elite athletes aren’t getting enough sleep, and that’s having a negative impact on how they perform in training and competitive events and matches. 



Harmful Effects of Sleep Deficits on Athletes

Poor quality and disturbed sleep affect an athlete’s physical and mental well-being. Inadequate sleep can lead to increased injury risks due to impaired focus and reaction times.

Not getting enough sleep also affects hormone regulation, and this negatively affects the growth hormone that influences muscle repair and recovery. So, not only is poor sleep increasing the risk of injury, it also impacts recovery times. Here are a few well-documented effects of poor sleep for athletes: 


Impaired Cognitive Function

Everyone knows the feeling when they’ve not slept well. You don’t think as clearly. Your brain feels sluggish. For athletes, whether in training or in a competitive match, sleep deficits can lead to cognitive decline, affecting decision-making, problem-solving, and strategic thinking. 

In turn, this can either cause injuries or slower performance at key moments when a player needs to think and act fast. Another study found that: “A lack of sleep also appears to negatively affect cognitive function; REM sleep is crucial for developing memories and learning motor skills, and so a reduction in this type of sleep will harm learning.” 


Increased Injury Risks

Fatigue increases the risk of accidents and poor technique, increasing the chance and risk of injuries among athletes who consistently lack sleep. Again, this comes down to poor cognitive responses and slower physical responses in situations where better sleep would ensure faster actions. 


Negative Impact on Hormonal Balance

Sleep regulates our hormones, including the growth hormone and cortisol. A disrupted hormonal balance can hinder muscle recovery and tissue repair, making injury times slower and increasing the risk of being injured again. 


Psychological Effects

Not getting enough sleep also takes a psychological toll on athletes. Sleep deprivation can contribute to mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and depression. For those with a big game coming up, this naturally puts them in a worse position mentally, and in turn, this could make them perform worse than normal. 

Now, let’s look at the causes and what coaches and performance consultants, including sleep professionals, can do to improve the sleep of the athletes they’re supporting. 



Why Don’t Elite Athletes Get Enough Sleep?

There are numerous reasons why athletes don’t always get enough sleep. Coaches need to factor in every aspect for individual athletes. For example, a player with a young family is probably going to be getting less sleep than someone who’s not got young children. 


Busy Schedules

Elite athletes often have demanding routines involving training sessions, competitions, travel, media obligations, and sponsor commitments. Travel is a serious contributor to poor sleep. Early starts, late-night travel, and jet lag can have a massive negative impact on how much sleep a team gets. 

When traveling for competitions, it makes sense to plan travel and sleep accordingly to maximize both. Also, ensure your players bring pillows, sleep masks, earplugs, and other sleep aids to help them get the same quality and amount of sleep they’d get before competitive games at home. 


Performance Anxiety and Pressure

Research shows that “athletes have poorer sleep immediately before competition, and there is some evidence that this effect is greater in higher standard athletes.” Stress and worrying about how they’ll perform in a game seem to have a negative impact on sleep. 

Although this might be a perceived lack of sleep, biometric tracking shows the amount of sleep athletes get is no better or worse before an important competition. However, even a perceived lack of sleep can have a psychological impact on how an athlete feels before an important game, especially if there’s a lot at stake, including their professional reputation and status. 


Training Schedules

Consider athletes’ sleep when planning training schedules. 

Research shows that “athletes wake earlier, and, as a result, sleep less on days that they’re training. There is a consistent and strong relationship between training start time and total sleep time, such that the earlier training starts, the less athletes sleep.” 

Now, let’s focus on how to improve the sleep performance of your athletes. 


What Can Be Done to Improve Sleep for Athletes?

Education and Awareness

Athletes, coaches, and sports organizations to understand the significance of sleep in optimizing performance. Considering the weight of evidence of the impact of poor sleep, it’s worth investing in educational programs that emphasize the relationship between sleep and overall well-being.


Tailored Training Schedules

Training schedules need to incorporate sufficient rest and recovery periods to ensure your team sleeps and performs better. Careful planning can balance intense training phases with appropriate rest intervals, and this will ensure your athletes perform better in training and competitive games. 


Sleep Best Practices

Sleep best practices include the use of black-out blinds, noise reduction techniques, limiting screen time before bed, limiting caffeine, and numerous other ways to improve sleep. 

Find out more in our other article: 10 Proven Sleep Strategies for High-Performance Athletes


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