Human Performance, Performance | Jul 26, 2016

Gold Medal Strategies for Sleep

4 keys steps towards optimal sleep for athletes.

Dr. Charles Samuels and Dr. Amy Bender of the Centre of Sleep & Human Performance in Calgary discuss the problems that stem from athletes not getting optimal sleep. They say that evidence suggests that poor sleep quality can have a detrimental effect on athletes and present a series of gold medal strategies that can help professionals gain the necessary sleep to boost elite performance:

Optimal sleep is essential for elite athletes to maximize performance. Given elite athletes are typically younger, more fit, and healthier than the general population we would expect elite athletes to have better sleep.

However, there are many characteristics unique to elite athletes that could impact the quality of their sleep. Athletes push both their body and mind to the limit during training and competition. They have unique physical demands that can create stressors on the body including soreness, pain, and inflammation.

In addition, they have unique mental demands including the stress and anxiety to perform well which may affect the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. There may also be constraints upon training times based upon the availability of the venue (e.g. pool, ice times, etc.). To top it all off athletes have to adapt to difficult travel schedules. Jet lag from transmeridian travel is prevalent depending on the sport and travel fatigue from multiple trips can accumulate across a season. All of these factors influence the quality of sleep in elite athletes which makes it imperative to assess their sleep patterns.

There are many ways in which athletes can monitor and optimize their sleep and if they are struggling to do so on their own, they can seek help from a sleep professional.

The 4 Keys to Optimal Sleep in Athletes

  1. Quantity – Athletes generally need about 7.5-9.5 hours of sleep per night. This number is not fixed but can fluctuate across a season depending on the training load. Because of the time it takes to fall asleep and the brief awakenings throughout the night, athletes should be in bed for at least 8-10 hours.

Napping has been shown to reduce sleepiness, heighten alertness, increase concentration, and enhance motor performance and mood. Research has shown that those who take a nap are more productive than those who don’t snooze during the day. For those who are getting between 7.5-9.5 hours of nighttime sleep we would recommend a daily 20-minute nap. For those who are not able to get a big enough chunk of nighttime sleep (for example, a swimmer with early training times), they would need to supplement it with a longer nap. For more information on napping read Take a Nap! Change your Life By Sara C. Mednick.

Gold medal sleep strategy:

Think in terms of weekly sleep quantity rather than daily sleep in order to allow some flexibility. For an athlete needing 8.5 hours of daily sleep (including naps) they would aim to get around 60 hours of sleep across the week. “Banking” (getting more) sleep a few nights prior to a big event will not allow a bad night’s sleep the night before an event to affect performance.

  1. Quality – An athlete could get 10 hours of sleep per night but if it’s not good quality then no amount of sleep can compensate. There are two main types of complaints for poor sleep quality: 1) Non-restorative sleep – which is the perception of getting enough sleep but the sleep is not refreshing and 2) Disturbed sleep – having restless, light, or fragmented sleep. Impacting factors can include primary sleep disorders, environmental disturbance, and mood disorders. The most common sleep disorder that we see in athletes is insomnia, which is not just about the inability to fall asleep within 30 minutes, but can include the inability to stay asleep. Many athletes we see have no problem falling asleep but wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time going back to sleep.

Gold medal sleep strategy:

Feeling refreshed within 30 minutes of awakening and not needing an alarm clock are both a good sign that the athlete is getting both the quantity and quality of sleep that they need. If an athlete does not feel like their sleep is restorative and is dissatisfied with the quality of their sleep it would likely be beneficial to seek help from a sleep professional.

  1. Timing – We are biologically driven to be “early birds”, “night owls” or somewhere in between. This changes across the lifespan as well. Adolescents and young adults are driven to stay up later and sleep in later because their circadian rhythm has been shown to be longer than the average adult. The good news is that our environment (particularly light exposure) can influence when we feel sleepy at night and alert in the morning.

Gold medal sleep strategy:

If you are struggling to go to bed before midnight you may need early morning light exposure to help advance your biological rhythm to be sleepier earlier. We recommend that athletes who are evening types but can’t stay on that schedule get 20-30 minutes of daily bright light therapy upon awakening.

  1. Sleep Hygiene – Sleep hygiene are the habits conducive to optimal sleep. Here are some tips that can help everyone sleep better.

The Importance of Sleep for Elite Athletes 

The Science of Sleep

What to Avoid

Alcohol – Helps you fall asleep more easily, but as it is metabolized you wake up more often.

Gold medal sleep strategy:

Limit alcohol to no more than one drink with dinner (four hours before bed).

Blue/Bright Light – Sends a signal to the brain to wake up which we do not want before bed! Recent research has shown that both electronic devices and bright light can impact your sleep quality and delay your biological rhythm the next day making it harder to fall asleep.

Gold medal sleep strategy: Set a technology and bright light curfew one hour before bed. This might include brushing your teeth in the dark if the bathroom lights are bright. Keep technology out of reach so you are not tempted to check it in the middle of the night.

Caffeine – Can take up to 12 hours to be metabolized and can increase time to fall asleep and middle of the night arousals if taken too close to bedtime.

Gold medal sleep strategy:

If you find yourself having problems falling asleep think about your caffeine consumption and if that could be the culprit. If so, set a caffeine curfew of 11am and avoid food with hidden caffeine in the evening, such as dark chocolate.

Bedtime and wake time consistency – Sleep is regulated by two processes – the homeostatic process (longer you are awake = more pressure for sleep) and the circadian process (24h biological rhythm of alertness/ drowsiness). Fluctuating bedtimes and wake times can affect both of these processes. For example, if you sleep in two hours on the weekend both processes will be delayed by about two hours, making it harder to fall asleep that evening.

Gold medal sleep strategy:

If you have to vary your sleep schedule occasionally opt for a variation in bedtime. A consistent wake time is important as it is the anchor point for sleep. Try to get bright light in the morning to set your biological rhythm to that wake-up time.

Cave – Keep your sleep environment like a cave. Cool, dark, and quiet. Our body temperature drops as we fall asleep making it important to be cool prior to bedtime. A warm bath or shower will temporarily increase our body temperature but, surprisingly, it also quickly plummets so it is a nice precursor to sleep. Both light and sound can impact our sleep quality as well.

Gold medal sleep strategy:

Use blackout shades, an eye mask, and earplugs to aid in better quality sleep. Ideally the room temperature should be between 17-20 °C (62-68°F).


  • It is important to assess the sleep quantity, quality, and timing of sleep in athletes.
  • If an athlete is unable to resolve a sleep issue on their own, it is important to seek help from a sleep professional.
  • Teams and individual athletes can make simple adjustments like avoiding early morning training times and providing athletes nap opportunities. The New York Yankees, Toronto Raptors, and Swansea City Football Club have all done this.

Copyright © 2016. The Centre for Sleep & Human Performance Inc. All rights reserved.

Sign up to our newsletters

To ensure you’re keeping up to date with the latest intelligence, sign up (for free) to receive newsletters.


Become a member

Join our exclusive community of 600 leading global performance organisations and access insights, ideas and individuals that will challenge your thinking and maximise performance.

Become a member