Sleep Series Part 3: Sleep and Athletic Performance

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Introduction written by Sara Small. Sara played Division 1 collegiate soccer at Wake Forest University and the University of Arkansas Little Rock and has played professional soccer in Europe for the past 4 years.

“I think for me, when I first noticed how big a role sleep played in my [soccer] career was when I got to college. We would have 7am training sessions and have to report at 6:30am to the field. Maybe it’s because of my position as a goalkeeper, where my reaction time and decision making have to be not only quick but flawless as well, but I noticed almost immediately that if I did not get enough sleep before these morning sessions, I noticeably struggled with my athletic performance. I would feel so slow from a cognitive standpoint and that in turn would cause me to be physically lethargic as well. It was actually really frustrating because I knew I was better than I was showing...I just couldn’t get my brain and body functioning on the same page.

Since then I have become very conscious of my sleep patterns and habits. I know it plays a huge role in not only my athletic performance but also my recovery which now as a professional athlete is arguably equally as important. I really try to maintain a schedule that allows me to get at the very minimum 7 hours of sleep every night but ideally, I shoot for 8. I’ve found that 7-8 hours is my sweet spot as far as waking up feeling rested and ready for the day.

I also practice meditation before bed. It helps me to calm my mind and relax before going to bed. It’s especially crucial for me to meditate the night before games or any other major athletic competition/trial because on those nights I have extra anxiety and rapid thoughts. Honestly, I’d say meditation has been one of the greatest additions to my athletic schedule because it really does help me get better and more restful sleep. I notice a difference in the quality of my sleep on the nights I do not meditate.

I think it is easier now than it was in college to get adequate sleep as I do not have the added stress and time constraints of classes and studying, but even now there are times when life doesn’t allow me to get enough sleep for whatever reason. While it’s probably not the best solution I have found that caffeine is always a helpful pick-me-up when that happens."

Competitive environments can negatively affect sleep due to multiple reasons. Optimal athletic performance requires not only proper training, but also nutrition, sleep and recovery.

Sleep has both physiological and psychological effects that affect athletic performance including mood, focus, and metabolism. Physiological effects from competitive training include an increase in inflammatory markers after strenuous training or competition and can affect almost all body systems including:

Endocrine system

  • Altered cortisol and growth hormone secretion leads to reduced coping with stress and reduced pain tolerance. It also decreases protein synthesis which can lead to poor healing.

Respiratory system

  • Reduced oxygen consumption and decreased efficiency of energy utilization means the body has to work harder than usual.

Metabolic system

  • Altered macro and micro nutrient absorption can lead to earlier fatigue.

Immune system

  • Dysregulated inflammatory mechanisms can increase the chance of infection and delay healing.

Cardiovascular system

  • Reduced cardiac recovery and poor heart rate variability can affect athletic performance and lead to heart conditions.

Sleep deprivation can also increase the risk of recurrent injuries. Because better sleep is association with concentration, memory, reaction speed and athletic performance, etc., it has been found to correlate with recurrent injury and concussions. It also affects healing times of ligaments and muscles and can delay recovery time, meaning athletes may return to the field/court later than expected or may return before they are fully healed based on established norms.

As Sara mentioned above, many times training sessions may be in the early morning. Early morning training schedules may disrupt sleep cycles and up to 79% of athletes reported problems with falling asleep the night before a competition. Elevated anxiety levels can influence this and interfere with sleep quality and quantity. When a sleep disturbance occurs, the subsequent sleep period may actually be more efficient even if shorter due to the homeostatic need for recovery sleep. The body is very good at compensating, so while a coffee or nap may help in the short term, in the long term, sleep deprivation can have negative psychological and physiological effects on athletic performance.

In a study performed by Radboud University and the Netherlands Olympic Committee, elite athletes aged from 15-32 were assessed based on both psychomotor performance (reaction time) as well as gross and fine motor skill performance related to their sport. Changes in sleep quantity of 60 minutes (shorter or longer) than their average had significant changes in psychomotor performance (reaction time) and less significant changes on athletic performance of gross motor skills. This shows that not only total sleep hours are important, but sleep consistency can play a vital role in performance, especially with tasks that require reaction speed.

So, if you are an athlete who has difficulty sleeping, try some of the tips in our previous article (Sleep Series Part 1: How Can I Sleep Better?), or reach out to a trusted provider for a more in-depth sleep evaluation. Better sleep will lead to better athletic performance and help you return faster to the sport you love after an injury.


B Chandrasekaran, S Fernandes, F Davis. Science of sleep and sports performance- a scoping review. Sci Sports. 2020 (35): 3-11.

M Knufinke et al., Effects of natural between-days variation in sleep on elite athletes’ psychomotor vigilance and sport-specific measures of performance. J Sports Sci. 2018 (17): 515-524.

G Romyn, E Robey, JA Dimmock, SL Halson, P Peeling. Sleep, anxiety and electronic device use by athletes in the training and competition environments. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016 (16)3: 301-308.

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