Sleep and Athletic Performance

A typical collegiate athletes day can consist of treatments, meetings, lifting, class, treatments, practice, class, and homework. A glaring omission to this day is what? REST. The purpose of sleep for the body is to heal, repair, and replenish the body from the individuals tasks of the previous day. For an athlete this can mean that they can properly recover the damaged muscle tissue from the demands of workouts and practice or replenishing glycogen stores which are the primary fuel source for most sports. Typically for this high school/collegiate set of individuals (Ages: 18-25) The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-10 hours of sleep each night.(4) Let's break down some effects of sleep loss in athletic and cognitive performance as well as some easy ways to help reach optimal sleep.

Athletic Performance

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Some research suggests that sleep deprivation increases levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Sleep deprivation has also been seen to decrease production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use during physical activity.” An excess increase of this stress hormone called cortisol has various negative effects on things like mood, sleep, bone development, and glucose regulation. With glucose/glycogen being the primary source of energy for many tissues and more notably muscle, any interruption in the ability to store this as energy decreases the body’s ability to perform at the desired level. The release of this

hormone in this fashion causes fat, protein, and carbohydrate breakdown to make these more readily available for use in this “fight or flight” response.(1) A chronic lack of sleep can also reduce things such as cardiovascular performance by as much as 11% (5) which in most sports where the base level of aerobic capacity places a key role in training, preparation, and competition can place the athlete at a deficit before he/she even steps foot on the field. Sleep loss even places an athlete at a higher risk for injury. As previously stated in relation to excess cortisol levels within the body can increase muscle breakdown and in turn hinder muscle recovery. Watson looked at the effect of decreased sleep on factors associated with an increase of training load (practice, workouts, etc) and found that decreased sleep mediates a significant portion of the negative effect of increases in training load such as fatigue and soreness.(5)

Cognitive Performance

In terms of cognitive performance, this can include attention, mood, memory and decision making to name a few. Pre competitive mood states are believed to aid in athletes performance in relation to a better management of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. A study looked at the relationship between sleep loss and emotional stability, which found that as sleep loss intensified, negative emotions increased when faced with a failed goal attempt. When looking at attention, two aspects are important which are speed and accuracy. A deficiency in one or both of those can negatively impact an athlete's ability to perform. Additionally, sleep restriction may result in an increased predisposition to injury due to decreased concentration, alertness and attention, reduced reaction time and response speed, and poor sports-specific skill execution.

Improve Your Sleep Pattern

According to the National Sleep Foundation here are some easy implemented tips to improve your sleep quality(4):

  1. Stick to sleep schedule: This helps to regulate your body’s clock and could help you fall asleep for the night.

  2. Re-evaluate your room: Keep your bedroom cool, free from any light, and any noise that could disturb you at night.

  3. Wind down: About an hour before bed try to do a calming activity, for student athletes this could be studying/reading and should not include electronic devices due to the light from the screen is activating to the brain.

  4. Use bright light to help manage your circadian rhythms: Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning to keep your circadian rhythms in check. The circadian rhythm tells our body when to rise,eat, and sleep which affected by things like sunlight and temperature.

With such a busy schedule for student athletes, doing things as simple as not watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram right before bed can at least make a dent in the battle of getting some quality sleep.


1)Edwards, B.j., and J. Waterhouse. “Athletic Performance; Effects of Sleep Loss.” Encyclopedia of Sleep, 2013, pp. 320–326., doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-378610-4.00071-1.

2) “Effects of sleep deprivation and exercise on cognitive, motor performance and mood.” Physiology & Behavior, Elsevier, 3 Jan. 2006,

3)Killgore, William D. S., and Mareen Weber. “Sleep Deprivation and Cognitive Performance.” Sleep Deprivation and Disease, Dec. 2013, pp. 209–229., doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-9087-6_16.

4)“Sleep Research & Education.” National Sleep Foundation,

5)Watson, Andrew, and Stacey Brickson. “Impaired Sleep Mediates the Negative Effects of Training Load on Subjective Well-Being in Female Youth Athletes.” Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, Aug. 2018, p. 194173811875742., doi:10.1177/1941738118757422.

Ben LaNeve, MS, CSCS

Director of Strength and Conditioning



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