How to Choose a Mattress If You're an Athlete

how to buy a mattress
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It's easy to overlook the importance of sleep if you're an athlete or active individual. You prioritize training and nutrition while balancing the demands of your family and work schedule. If something has to give, it's generally a couple of hours from your sleep schedule each night. Unfortunately, skimping on sleep is a surefire way to downgrade your performance at the gym or on the course.

In fact, according to a 2016 study published in the Strength & Conditioning Journal co-authored by Geoff Marshall and Anthony Turner, athletes don't just need high-quality sleep, they need more sleep than their less-active peers to recover from training and prepare for subsequent training and competition. You see, consistently getting 7 to 10 hours of sleep per night optimizes performance by maintaining motivation, arousal, and cognitive functions that relate to concentration and the perception of pain and exertion. It also enables optimal physiological function related to metabolism, immunity, and cardiovascular performance.

Why Quality Sleep Matters

When you sleep better, you feel better, think better, and perform better—it's just science. Yet, Marshall and Turner also found that sleep deprivation is common in athletes—this subset of the population is chronically inclined to underestimate their need for extra shuteye.

So, here's the deal: If you're an athlete, sleep needs to become a priority. To have your best performance, you've got to hit the hay. And by hay, I mean you've got to hit your mattress—the one place where you should be spending at least seven hours a day, uninterrupted. That adds up to roughly one-third of your life, which makes finding a high-quality mattress that supports deep, pain-free sleep, one of the most important decisions you can make.

Of course, buying a mattress can feel daunting. Mattresses often range in price from a couple hundred bucks to well over 10 grand—not an amount you want to just throw away on an uninformed purchase. Then there are the sales pitches that tout features and benefits that are often hard to qualify as a consumer. Add to that the sheer number of options on the market, and it's not hard to see how you might find yourself unable to make a final decision. Here's what you need to narrow down your options and choose the best possible mattress for you.

Key Mattress Features

Mark Kleyne, a mattress expert at Novosbed, says everyone—athlete or not—should weigh the following features before purchasing a mattress:

  • Comfort and support. Obviously, you want your mattress to be comfortable and supportive, but that means different things to different people. As a general rule of thumb, Kleyne says you should look for mattresses with a minimum of three layers of support, with at least one of those layers made with higher density foam. "Better quality, high-density memory foam will provide an improved level of support and body contouring," Kleyne says.
  • Pressure point relief. If you've ever had the experience where you sleep soundly for a few hours, then you wake up in pain and have to shift positions, chances are your mattress isn't providing sufficient pressure point relief. According to Kleyne, slow-response, high-density foam helps alleviate pressure points, specifically at the shoulders and hips. "Just as your favorite pair of shoes mold to the unique shape of your feet, your mattress should mold to the unique shape of your body," he adds.
  • Correct spinal alignment. "Regardless of what position you sleep in, your ears, shoulders, and hips should all be aligned," Kleyne says, "This is why mattresses that offer adjustable firmness are so important." This fact is particularly important if you share your bed with a partner. Different people have different sleep needs, so being able to adjust your mattress to meet each sleeper's needs is critical to long-term sleep quality. Options like Novosbed's Comfort+ system and Sleep Number's adjustable air system are examples of such customizations.
  • Trial periods. Lying down on a bed for five minutes in a store is not reflective of a full night's sleep. Likewise, the first night spent on a new bed is not reflective of how that bad will withstand ongoing use. Of course, mattress companies can't offer indefinite return policies, but you should be given a nice, long trial period in which to change your mind. "Don't even consider mattresses offering in-home trials less than 100 days," Kleyne says. It takes a good three months for your body to adjust to a mattress and for your mattress to adjust to your body. Most bed-in-a-box companies offer 100-day trials, with some, including Novosbed, Saatva, and Zenhaven, offering up to 120-days.
  • Price. There's no doubt, mattress companies need to make money, but uber-expensive mattresses aren't necessarily your best option. "Let's be honest, mattresses don't need to cost over $2,000," Kleyne says. "The bed-in-a-box sensation has taken over largely because shipping mattresses directly to the customer enables companies to pass the savings on to the consumer." Just keep in mind, this new business model has led to many new mattress companies that use lower-quality foam that doesn't provide adequate support. The key words for durability and support are "high-density memory foam."
  • Customer service. Don't shy away from asking lots of questions about the mattresses you're considering purchasing. At the end of the day, you want to buy from a brand whose support team knows mattresses like the back of their hands and is ready to respond to any question or possible complaint. This is particularly true during the trial period of any mattress you test—touch base with customer support as questions arise and make sure they're readily available to help. You don't want to get stuck with a mattress (or customer service team) that offers poor support.

Special Considerations

Given the extra recovery time required to maximize performance, athletes need to be particularly conscientious of pressure point relief. "The last thing an athlete wants is that 'sinking' feeling in a mattress with little support," says Kleyne.

But contrary to popular belief, that doesn't necessarily mean you need an extra firm mattress. A 2003 study published in The Lancet, found that medium-firm mattresses ranking a 5.6 on the 1 to 10 scale developed by the European Committee for Standardisation, with 1 being the most firm and 10 being the softest, were more comfortable and better at reducing chronic low back pain than mattresses ranking a 2.3 on the scale. In other words, medium-firm mattresses were better at reducing pain and pressure points than extra firm mattresses.

That said, personal comfort is key. Whether you want a firmer or softer mattress, you should look for high-density foams that contour to your unique shape to help alleviate pressure. According to Kleyne, this helps maintain a healthy posture for proper spinal alignment. "Remember, proper alignment, regardless of how you sleep, should align your ears, shoulders, and hips," he says.

Foam Layers 

Head to almost any mattress company website, and you'll immediately see a breakdown of the mattress in terms of layers of foam. Pay attention to these details. If you're looking to buy a memory foam mattress, make sure the breakdown actually specifies "memory foam," for at least one of the layers. Of course, not every layer needs to be memory foam. In fact, the bottom layer of most mattresses is termed "support foam." You may also see references to "comfort foam," "latex layer," "open cell foam," "transition foam," "performance foam," and the like. Just keep in mind, unless it says "memory foam," it's not memory foam you're getting.

Also, Kleyne suggests looking specifically for reference to high-density memory foam. "High-density foams are more viscous than low-density foams, and stand up better to your body weight and wear and tear over time. They also provide greater bounce and support, but are more expensive to produce," he says. This is why some companies try to get away with using less memory foam and more foams of different specifications.

Fabric Mattress Cover

The comfort and support a mattress offers is hands-down the most important factor when purchasing a mattress, but details matter, too. Today's fabrics and materials are much more high-tech than in the 1990s or even the early 2000s. Just as sporting goods companies offer a wide range of wicking, cooling materials in their athletic apparel, mattress companies offer a wide range of technical features in their mattress covers. Because you want your mattress to stay cool and breathable all night long, check for covers that facilitate airflow and temperature control. "Novosbed, for instance, uses a Tencel, eucalyptus-derived fabric that helps wick away sweat and moisture," Kleyne says.

Novosbed isn't alone. Brands like 4-Sleep and Bear also offer performance-level covers that are especially appealing to athletes or anyone prone to night sweats.

You may also want to look for covers that are removable so you can wash the top and keep it clean. These are harder to come by, as most companies simply suggest you purchase a separate mattress protector, but Novosbed and OSO are two companies that provide this feature. 

Dealbreakers

If you're still struggling to make a decision, Kleyne says the biggest deal-breakers come down to the sleep trial. Given that buying a mattress is such an investment, you deserve to feel confident in your decision, and that requires a legitimate sleep trial. Seek out companies that offer at least 100 nights of in-home testing, and most importantly, make sure the trial is risk-free. "You shouldn't be required to pay a cent to return your mattress if you don't absolutely love it," Kleyne says. And to that point, you should be allowed to return the mattress within the trial period, no questions asked.

Stores vs. Online Purchases

How and where you buy your mattress is a personal decision, but there's a lot to be said for the advent of ship-to-your-door mattress companies. Of course, it takes a leap of faith to make a purchase, given that you can't test-drive the model before bringing it home, but as long as the in-home trial period is substantial and risk-free, you can always return it if you don't like the mattress you've selected.

Pros of Buying Online: 

  • Lower prices for mattresses with similar features
  • The convenience of doorstep delivery
  • Long sleep trials that typically come with risk-free returns
  • Typically high-quality materials made in the USA
  • No sales reps; you can take your time to research different brands to find the one that's best for you and your budget

Cons of Buying Online: 

  • Can't try before you buy; you have to make a purchase to receive delivery of the product
  • Returns can be a hassle; some online companies have return shipping fees and mailing the mattress back can be a pain point

It's also important to note the in-store market and online market for mattresses are almost entirely separate. The brands you find in-store aren't the same brands you find offering the "bed-in-a-box" delivery and vice versa. For the most well-rounded research, you may have to research brands online and go to a store to test the brands that aren't sold in this manner.

A Word From Verywell

Sleeping on a comfortable mattress that alleviates pain and soreness while supporting uninterrupted sleep is certainly important, but it's not the only important factor when it comes to sleep hygiene. To optimize your nighttime routine and maximize post-workout recovery, remember to keep your bedroom cool and dark, avoid using technology an hour or so before bed, and reserve your bed for sleep and sex to get your body used to relaxing while in bed. If anxiety contributes to restless nights, try meditating or doing yoga before going to bed, and write down your to-do list for the following day to help settle your mind. These small steps can significantly improve your sleep experience.

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Article Sources
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