How much sleep do I need to recover from training?
Sleep is probably the most important factor in recovery and so many other aspects of health. One review article suggests that lack of sleep in athletes leads to decreased cognitive function, reaction times, and sport specific accuracy (1). Most adults require between 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night. It is possible that athletes or those who exercise need a lot more.
What are the consequences of lack of sleep?
Lack of sleep in general can be detrimental to health, negatively effecting the nervous, metabolic, immunologic and cardiovascular systems. Lack of sleep can affect judgment and decision making. Lack of sleep can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes, increase inflammation, impede muscle repair, and more. In athletes, sleep deprivation of 24 hours or more or consistently 2-4 hours less sleep per night, can effect performance. Studies have shown decreased running performance, reduced strength, decreased accuracy, skill impairment, and decreased time to exhaustion. Cognitively, the effects on athletes are decreased subjective energy, poor mood, slow reaction time, impaired judgment, and increased confusion(2). On the flip side, increasing sleep when deprived has been shown to improve anabolic hormones (muscle buildup), improve cognitive function, improve running and swimming sprint times, improve accuracy, improve mood, alertness, vigor, and reaction times (2).
Healthy Sleep Hygiene Recommendations
Healthy Sleep Hygiene ‘Top Ten’ Recommendations (source: UCSD Center for Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine patient information handout)(3)
1. Don’t go to bed until you are sleepy. If you aren’t sleepy, get out of bed and do something else until you become sleepy.
2. Regular bedtime routines/rituals help you relax and prepare your body for bed (reading, warm bath, etc.).
3. Try to get up at the same time every morning (including weekends and holidays).
4. Try to get a full night’s sleep every night, and avoid naps during day if possible (if you must nap, limit to 1 h and avoid nap after 3 p.m.).
5. Use the bed for sleep and intimacy only; not for any other activities such as TV, computer or phone use, etc.
6. Avoid caffeine if possible (if must use caffeine, avoid after lunch).
7. Avoid alcohol if possible (if must use alcohol, avoid right before bed).
8. Do not smoke cigarettes or use nicotine, ever.
9. Consider avoiding high-intensity exercise right before bed (extremely intense exercise may raise cortisol, which impairs sleep).
10. Make sure bedroom is quiet, as dark as possible, and a little on the cool side rather than warm (similar to a cave).
Additional Sleep Hygiene Methods:
Other ‘Tips & Tricks’ for Healthy Sleep Hygiene (4)
1. Avoid blue light emitted from screens at least 2 hours before bed (smartphones, laptop, monitors). Blue light suppresses melatonin production that is needed to induce sleep. Avoid text messaging, social media, games, app use.
2. Get bright, natural light (the sun) upon awakening (the sun is ideal, but some suggest at least a 10,000 lux lamp if artificial)
3. Don’t hit the snooze button. It does not improve sleep quality.
4. If you have difficulty waking up, some suggest a dawn-simulator alarm clock.
5. If you must use your computer at night, consider installing color-adjusting and blue-light reducing software or wear blue-light blocking glasses.
6. Meditation may be helpful. Brainwave entrainment (e. g., binaural beats) is considered experimental.
7. Higher carbohydrate (namely high glycemic index foods) at night may improve sleep, as well as high protein including tryptophan. High fat intake at night may disrupt sleep. Inadequate total caloric intake during the day may impair sleep at night.
8. Topical magnesium (e. g., salt bath, topical mineral oil) or oral magnesium may help if you are deficient.
9. Melatonin which is naturally occurring in foods (e. g., tart cherry juice, raspberries, goji berries, walnuts, almonds, tomatoes) may potentially improve sleep, but avoid artificial melatonin supplements.
10. Don’t fall asleep to the TV. Sleep studies show you frequently wake up during the night and have poor quality sleep.
11. Herbal supplements are largely unknown with potential serious side effects, and may be on USADA-prohibited lists or result in positive banned substance test for athletes.
12. Consider reducing your fluid intake before bed so you don’t get up to go to the bathroom (only if you maintain enough hydration during the day).
13. Cooling your body temperature may improve sleep. Some suggest keeping room between 60–70 degrees; however, keep hands and feet warm (socks and gloves may help during winter months).
14. Check your mattress – it may be too old (mattresses typically last a maximum of 9–10 years) and may have allergens.
15. Recovery from exercise should not only focus on muscle recovery. Reducing mental fatigue is just as important for healthy sleep. Reduce external stressors in your life.
Get some sleep! All the recommendations above are great. My key ones: Since a sleep cycle is 90 min, I recommend trying to get increments of 90 min or at least 45 min. So Aim for 7 hr 30 min, 8 hr 15 min or 9 hr per night. If you cannot get that take a quick power nap before 3 pm for 15-20 min or a 90 min (full sleep cycle nap). As above try to get into a sleep routine for similar bedtime and awake times every day of the week. If you use your phone turn off the blue light which is a feature most phones have now. Only use the bed for intimacy and sleep and wait until you are getting sleepy before getting in bed. Don’t eat or exercise within 2-3 hours of going to bed.
1. O’Donnell S, Beaven CM, Driller MW. From pillow to podium: a review on understanding sleep for elite athletes. Nat Sci Sleep. 2018;10:243–253. Published 2018 Aug 24. doi:10.2147/NSS.S158598
2. Vitale KC, Owens R, Hopkins SR, Malhotra A. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int J Sports Med. 2019;40(8):535–543. doi:10.1055/a-0905-3103
3. UCSD Center for Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine. Sleep Hygiene Patient Information Handout [Brochure]. San Diego, CA: University of California San Diego; 2017 [Google Scholar]
4. Halson S Sleep in elite athletes and nutritional interventions to enhance sleep. Sports Med 2014; 44: 13–23 [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]