Do Athletes Need Extra Sleep?

Female tennis player serving ball, low angle view

PhotoAlto / Sandro Di Carlo Darsa / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

The amount of sleep an athlete gets appears to have a large impact on sports performance. Researchers speculate that deep sleep helps improve athletic performance because this is the time when growth hormone is released.

Growth hormone stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning, and helps athletes recover. Research provides insights into how much sleep is needed and different ways to improve sleep.

More Sleep, Improved Performance

Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory has been following the sleep patterns and athletic performance of Stanford athletes for years. Her research continues to show that getting more sleep leads to better sports performance for all types of athletes.

For one study, Mah followed the Stanford University women's tennis team for five weeks as they attempted to get 10 hours of sleep each night. Players who increased their sleep time ran faster sprints and hit more accurate tennis shots than they did when getting their usual amount of sleep.

In other studies, Mah found that getting extra sleep over several weeks improved performance, mood, and alertness for athletes on the Stanford men's and women's swim teams and men's basketball team.

Mah's research is some of the first to specifically look at the impact of extra hours of sleep on athletic performance. It suggests that sleep is a significant factor in achieving peak athletic performance.

Collegiate and professional athletes have full schedules and often travel for games and competitions. They can easily fail to get regular, consistent hours of sleep.

Sleep is also necessary for learning a new skill. The deep sleep phase of sleep may be especially critical for some athletes. According to Mah, many athletes have set new personal bests and broken long-standing records while participating in these studies.

Based on Mah's studies, many Stanford coaches have made changes to practice and travel schedules to accommodate the athlete's need for more sleep. For many athletes and coaches, this was the first body of research that helped them truly understood how large of an impact sleep can have on performance and results.

Sleep Deprivation in Athletes

Lack of sleep (also called "sleep debt") appears to have a negative effect on sports performance, cognitive function, mood, and reaction time. Studies show that sleep deprivation slows the release of growth hormone.

Research shows that as little as 20 hours of sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on sports performance, particularly for power and skill sports. Much of this can be avoided by making regular sleep a top priority for athletes.

Sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours of daily sleep for adults, and nine to 10 hours for adolescents and teens.

You can estimate your own needs by experimenting over a few weeks. If you fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed and wake up without an alarm, you are probably getting the right amount of sleep. If you fall asleep immediately upon hitting the pillow and always need an alarm to wake up, you are probably sleep-deprived.

How to Improve Sleep and Performance

The good news for most recreational athletes is that just one restless night is not necessarily associated with any negative effects on performance. So, don't worry if you toss and turn the night before a big competition. But in general, there are things you can do to get better sleep to improve your sports performance

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day.
  • Increase your sleep time several weeks before a major competition.
  • Make sleep a priority in your training schedule.

If you can't get enough sleep at night, take short daily naps during the day.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Samuels C. Sleep, recovery, and performance: The new frontier in high-performance athletics. Neurol Clin. 2008;26(1):169-80. doi:10.1016/j.ncl.2007.11.012

  2. 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):943-50. doi:10.5665/SLEEP.1132

  3. O'Donnell S, Beaven CM, Driller MW. From pillow to podium: a review on understanding sleep for elite athletes. Nat Sci Sleep. 2018;10:243-253. doi:10.2147/NSS.S158598

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.