The basics of sleeping for performance

Two of the world’s greatest athletes have crazy sleeping routines. Roger Federer is said to sleep 10-12 hours a night while LeBron James would sleep 12 hours a day. This conflicts with governmental advice to sleep 7-9 hours a night 1. At Train4Performance, we decided to take a deep dive into sleeping habits and its effects on performance. At the end of the article, you will possess all relevant and scientific knowledge about sleeping for performance.

To come straight to the point, sleeping as many hours as Federer’s and James’ is currently not backed up by science. There is one study by Cheri Mah on 11 university basketball players about this sleep extension to 10 hours a night. The study showed that sleep extension from 8 to 10 hours a night may improve sprinting times by 4% and free throw scoring percentage by 9% 2. However, this study seems to be an exemption to current beliefs. It lacks significance due to the small population studied and suboptimal research design. To the contrary, excess sleep (9-11) has even been linked to lower reaction times, worsened mood and increased sleepiness 3. Sleeping as long as these elite athletes is therefore not advised to fanatic sportsmen. In my opinion, the only exception to this rule is if you have participated in a very demanding physical activity such as a marathon or a very long tennis match.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is prolonged sleep deprivation. It has been linked to decreases in performance in endurance-related sports while anaerobic/maximal effort activities remain unaffected 4. Moreover, acute sleep deprivation of 24 hours could not be linked to decreases of anaerobic performance but reduced endurance related activities. Fortunately, one night of short sleep will most likely not affect your performance at all. Next time, you can’t fall asleep the night before an important game, you do not need to worry about underperforming.

Concrete evidence-based tips thus resemble around the following points:

  • Sleep between 7-9 hours per night for optimal performance and optimal health. Sleeping enough will help you prevent injuries 5 and feel most energized. Don’t worry if you don’t hit the 7-9 hour mark every night. As demonstrated above, a one-time bad night of sleep is unlikely to impair performance. Moreover, there is no need to sleep for more than 7-9 hours.
  • Do not use any mobile devices just before bedtime if you have trouble hitting the 7-9 hour mark. These prolong the time it takes to fall asleep and will thus prevent you from sleeping enough 6.
  • Stop drinking caffeine from more than 6 hours before you go to bed. One cup of coffee taken 6 hours before going to bed will decrease your amount of sleep by 1 hour 7. Caffeine intake close to bedtime is thus detrimental for athletes having difficulties sleeping enough. As a bonus tip, don’t drink too much water before you go to bed as it might wake you up several times a night.
  • Take a short nap (no more than 30 minutes) if you are sleep deprived and want to improve performance. Naps before physical activity have been linked to faster sprinting times and greater alertness and could thus be used after a week of little sleep to improve performance 8.
  • Focus on quality of sleep rather than quantity of sleep once you are already hitting the 7-9 hours mark. Bedroom temperature has for example a strong influence on the quality of sleep. The optimal bedroom temperature was found to be 26 °C when sleeping with a thin blanket and short-sleeved sleepwear9. Especially, temperatures of some degrees above this threshold are linked to decreases in sleeping quality. Therefore, it is advised to make sure your bedroom is not too warm. Lower bedroom temperatures may be better if you have a thicker blanket. A temperature of 18-20 °C is commonly advised but is not backed up by science. Some temperature between 18 and 26 °C may thus be optimal depending on the individual and the thickness of the blanket. Higher temperatures are certainly not advised as these lead to worse quality of sleep.

The tips mentioned above will help you hit the 7-9 hour sleep mark and improve sleep quality. These two form the basis of sleeping for performance and achieving them will help you crush your goals. If you want more practical and SCIENCE-BASED tips, make sure to check out Train4Performance every Wednesday at 18:00 (Central European time). As always, keep up the good work and peace out!

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