Sleep, Recovery and Sports Performance


Recovery is equally as important as training to achieve our best performances in sport. Sleep is a critical recovery strategy that many family- and career-focused masters athletes tend to negate. Here are some tips from a recently published review of the available research on how to improve your sleeping habits.

Sleep and Sports Performance

Research on young athletes has shown that when they sleep more they perform better and feel healthier. Not surprsing really given that research has shown that sleep is the ranked as the most important problem among athletes of any age when asked to identify their main causes of fatigue and tiredness.

In young athletes, it is suggested 7-9 hours of sleep is needed to ensure adequate physical and psychological recovery from training. Even more sleep is suggested during periods of injury, when travelling or during heavy training or in competition.

Napping of around 30 minutes has been suggested to help 20m sprint performance and alertness in sleep-deprived athletes, especially if taken just after lunch. So when in competition, think about a nap after lunch if you’ve had trouble sleeping the night before a major event.

As previously presented in this website, encouraging young athletes to get more sleep improved sprint performance, shooting accuracy and and feelings of wellbeing in young basketballers. Strategies to improve both the quality and quantity of sleep include:

  1. Maintain a regular sleep scedule of when you wake up and when you go to bed.
  2. If you can’t sleep within 15 minutes of going to bed, get up and do something that doesn’t require high level thinking – read, watch TV, meditate.
  3. Get rid of the bedroom clock.
  4. Avoid coffee, tobacco and alcohol in the hours before bed.
  5. Nap just after lunch not in the late afternoon.
  6. Maintain a cool (approx 18 degree C) room temperature.
  7. Don’t eat/drink large quantities of food or drink before bed.

When on a flight and wanting to sleep try:

  1. Ajusting your watch to the time zone you are travelling to.
  2. Use pillows to create a comfortable sleeping space.
  3. Use eyeshades and ear plugs.
  4. Avoid coffee, tobacco and alcohol.
  5. Eat meals to the destination schedule.
  6. Drink water regularly.

Sleep Recommendations for Athletes

1. Amount of Sleep: Suggested to be 7-9 hours in young athletes with young athleets in heavy training 4-6 hours a day suggested to get between 10-12 hours a night. It’s been a myth for years that the older we get the less sleep we need so it appears reasonable that we should be ensuring we get as much sleep as possible when in training. Not easy with family and careers!

2. Regular Routine and Sleep Habits: Having a regular sleep routine is key. Avoiding watching TV or using a computer in bed.

3. Napping: Naps of less than 30 minutes in duration taken just after lunch appear to improve performance and thinking. Avoid late afternoon or early evening naps.

4. Use recovery strategies after training or competition: Chapter 15 in my book examines in great detail the exact methods athletes need to recover after training or competition. These include nutrition, cold water immersion, ice baths and compression garments.

5. Lower Anxiety Before Sleeping: Life has it’s own stressors, especially with family, relationships and careers being juggled with training for a goal. Research has consistently shown, as life experience has, that stress lowers sleep quality and quantity. Relaxing before bed with a book, meditation, imagery, and/or self-talk can all help lower anxiety levels. Letting go of muscular tension by closing the eyes, focusing on breathing slowly and deeply, then progressively relaxing the muscles at top of the head, the forehead, face, neck, back, abdomen, arms, stomach, hips, legs, feet can help.

So What?

Both the quality and quantity of sleep are important in maximising both training and playing performance in athletes. As highlighted in Chapter 15 (Recovery Strategies for the Masters Athlete) of my book The Masters Athlete, sleep is crucial for recovery, performance, and maximising the immune system in older athletes. The same chapter in my book lists the above key strategies and others for getting a good night’s sleep and highlights which recovery strategies science says work and how to use them. Indeed, from a health perspective, research has shown that getting between 7-9 hours sleep a night is crucial for longevity and prevention of some chronic diseases, yet another reason we aging athletes need to get a good night’s sleep. Click here to read more.


1. Bird, S. (2013). Sleep, recovery, and athletic performance: a brief review and recommendations. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 35(5): 43-47.

2. Mah, C. and others (2011). The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep, 34(7): 943-950.