Science Friday | How Does Sleep Affect Athletic Performance

Updated: May 10

This is the first installment of our #ScienceFriday series where Chaski professionals will walk you through the science of an endurance-related topic. This piece is brought to you by Jenna Gigliotti, a Chaski Coaching Resident from Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jenna Gigliotti, MPAS, PA-C is a Physician Assistant who works in family medicine with a passion for lifestyle medicine (evidence-based, therapeutic interventions centered around nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress management, and social connections to prevent and treat chronic disease). She has been competitively running since age 12 through college at Duquesne University and continues competing as a member of the Western Mass Distance Project since finishing grad school in 2016. Jenna finished her first season coaching cross country at Deerfield Academy in Fall 2020 and is stoked to have joined the Chaski coaching residency program to further hone her coaching skills, share her experience with other runners, and give back to the running community which has shaped so much of who she is. When not working, running, or coaching, you can find her cuddling dogs, growing veggies in her garden, cooking plant-based meals, practicing yoga, or dancing around to 80s pop music.

Adequate and high quality sleep is essential to our overall health and wellbeing. Sleep has been shown to have a significant impact on physical development, emotional regulation, cognitive performance, and quality of life(1).

For athletes, sleep also plays an integral role in the recovery and adaptive process between workout sessions and insufficient sleep likely impairs this recovery(2). Increasing evidence associates adequate sleep duration and good sleep quality with improved performance and competitive success(1). Athletes likely require more sleep than inactive individuals and research has suggested that adult athletes should aim to obtain 8 to 10 hours of sleep instead of the general recommendation of 7 to 9 hours for adults(3).

Not only does optimal sleep improve recovery and adaptive gains, but increased sleep duration has also been associated with a decrease in perceived exertion and improvement in time to exhaustion at comparable workloads(4). Thus, adequate sleep before a workout may help you train harder and adequate sleep after a workout may allow you to recover better. On the other hand, lack of sleep has been noted to have a negative effect on fatigue, mood, soreness, and other subjective measures of health(5).

Further, adequate sleep may decrease illness and injury risk. One study found that individuals who slept less than 8 hours per night on average were 70% more likely to report an injury than those who slept more than 8 hours(6). Decreased sleep has also been associated with immune suppression and particularly increased susceptibility to upper respiratory infections (ie. the common cold)(7). Illness and injury are some of the biggest barriers to consistent training and avoiding these helps athletes to string together longer blocks of successful training. Sleep thus affects the micro (day to day) and macro (month to month or season to season) cycles of training.

To make the most of all your hard work and effort, focusing on sufficient quantity and quality of sleep is of paramount importance. Optimal sleep is a significant, yet often forgotten about and underemphasized, part of the equation that will help you achieve gains in performance and ultimately reach your goals. Below are some recommendations to help you optimize your sleep quantity and quality.

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Tips to Achieve Adequate and High-Quality Sleep

  • No screens (phone, computer, tv, etc) for 1-2 hours before bed -- exposure to blue light from screens suppresses the body’s natural melatonin production which has been shown to delay sleep onset and reduce duration and quality of sleep(8). Consider incorporating reading, journaling, meditating, breathing exercises, and other de-stressing activities as part of your bedtime routine.

  • Surround yourself with a dark, cool, and quiet environment to sleep in -- blackout curtains, eye mask, earplugs, white noise machine, fan, etc as needed.

  • No caffeine after 12pm -- caffeine is stimulating and can make it more difficult to fall asleep. The half-life of caffeine is about 5 hours in most people(9), meaning that 5 hours after drinking a cup of coffee, you have 1/2 cup of coffee worth of caffeine still circulating in your blood (ie. drinking a cup of coffee at 12pm leaves the average person with 1/4 cup of coffee worth of caffeine at 10 pm).

  • Schedule sufficient time in bed to aim for 8-10 hours of sleep a night while training -- ideally with consistent sleep and wake time that also accounts for the time it takes for you to fall asleep.

  • Naps may add to overall sleep time but should not replace nighttime sleep. If you are incorporating naps, they should ideally be no longer than 30 minutes and happen in the afternoon(1).

As always, contact a medical professional for any specific questions or concerns regarding difficulty sleeping, snoring, restless legs, excessive daytime fatigue, etc.