We’ve covered the benefits of exercise for improving the quality of your sleep and how to balance sleep and exercise (click here).

In this post we’ll cover the importance of sleep for athletes at all levels, including recent scientific studies that look at the benefits of sleep for recovery after exercise.


Why is rest and recovery important in training?

Short-term recovery is crucial to maintaining and improving performance and preventing injury in all levels of athletic training. Short-term recovery, sometimes called active recovery, includes the lower intensity cool-down phase after a tough workout as well as an entire rest day that involves low-intensity exercise like walking, stretching or yoga or other cross training. Short-term recovery also requires replenishing energy and fluid lost during exercise and getting adequate sleep.

Sleep quality before and after exercise is important. Researchers suspect that it is deep sleep that 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.

How can more sleep help athletes?

Many studies have tested the effects of sleep deprivation on athletic performance.

Effects include:

  • Slower muscle recovery
  • Changes in mood
  • Increase level of stress hormones, including cortisol
  • Decreased glycogen synthesis
  • Increased aerobic endurance
  • Increased ratings of perceived exertion. 

Fewer studies have looked at the effects of increased sleep. One study from 2009 showed that increased sleep was associated with a faster sprinting speed and hitting accuracy in college tennis players. Another showed that increasing the average number of hours per sleep for a group of basketball players from 6.5 per night to nearly 8.5 hours per night improved their free throw shooting by 11.4% and their three-point shooting by 13.7%. 

Even for the rest of us, exercise can help our sleep. According to the 2013 Sleep in America survey from the National Sleep Foundations, regular exercisers report getting better quality sleep. While those who exercise vigorously reported the best sleep quality, even light exercisers reported better sleep than those who do not exercise at all.

Additionally, non-exercisers are at greater risk for sleep apnea. The same poll found that 44% of non-exercisers are at moderate risk for the disorder compared to only 19% of vigorous exercisers.

Do I need more sleep if I exercise?

It depends on the intensity and frequency of your exercise. Elite athletes are known to sleep 10-12 hours a night while training and nap throughout the day to maintain their endurance.

Each person is different. If you are new to exercise, you may be a lot sleepier after a long run that someone who’s a regular runner. Just like your diet, you need to evaluate your sleep needs based on how you feel. If you’re falling asleep as soon as you crawl into bed and struggling to wake up with your alarm, you are probably sleep deprived.

Verywell.com offers these tips for using sleep to improve your sleep performance:

  • Make sleep a priority in your training schedule.
  • Increase your sleep time several weeks before a major competition.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day.
  • Take daily naps if you don’t get enough sleep at night.
  • Don’t worry if you have one bad night of sleep, even before a competition. One sleepless night is unlikely to hurt your performance.