8 Ways to Sleep Like a Pro Athlete

By Ryan Skidmore

In our training, we hear over and over again how important sleep is, but do we really take it to heart? I know many past high school athletes who have wished they were more serious during their season. Sleep is essential to good health—it helps your brain work properly, improves learning, helps you pay attention, regulates hormones, affects your body’s reaction to insulin, and helps repair your heart and blood vessels. Being regularly sleep-deprived makes you irritable, weakens your immune system, and lessens your ability to focus and remember things.

For athletes, sleep can literally make or break their career. Click To Tweet

All the adverse effects of sleep deprivation are amplified for professional athletes, who depend on their body’s performance to make a living. Sleep for athletes can literally make or break their career! One study showed that basketball players who increased the amount of sleep they got demonstrated a 9% improvement in accuracy when shooting the ball. The same study found similar improvements in swimmers—performance improved as the amount of sleep increased.

How Better Sleep Improves Athletic Performance

A better night of sleep enhances an athlete’s performance in the following ways:

Fewer Mistakes

First of all, insufficient sleep impairs your judgment. Sleep fuels the body’s ability to concentrate, remember, and learn. So, when it’s running on fumes, the brain has much more difficulty organizing and retaining new information.

One study showed that the “plate discipline” of MLB players (how often a batter swings at balls outside the strike zone) steadily decreases as the playing season wears on. It seems counterintuitive—you would think the opposite would be true—because a player gains so much continuous practice throughout a season. However, the results were consistent: The players’ judgment was better at the beginning of the season than the end. A 162-game season would certainly cause some mental exhaustion!

Fewer Injuries and Better Health in General

In one study, researchers found that among high school athletes, the amount of sleep they got was the biggest predictor of injuries. In another study, researchers at the University of California determined that when athletes got less than six hours of sleep at night, the rate of injuries was higher during the game the next day.

Tired athletes are slower to react to a ball, puck, or player speeding toward them, increasing the likelihood of injury. Additionally, insufficient sleep doesn’t allow the body time to repair from the stress of workouts and games. And, because exhaustion also affects the immune system, sleep-deprived athletes are more susceptible to illness.

Faster Reaction Times

Although my playing days are over, I have a cousin who plays college football for the University of Utah. I talked to him about his view on sleep, and he told me: “It makes a huge difference in my performance. If I’m not fully awake, my reaction time is slower. I make so many more mistakes.”

Going 22 hours without sleep can impair reaction time more than four alcoholic drinks can. Click To Tweet

Every millisecond counts when you’re an athlete, and inadequate sleep can greatly impair reaction time. Research shows that even a relatively minor loss of sleep can affect reaction times on a level similar to that of being legally drunk. Just one all-nighter can decrease reaction times by a shocking 300%; in fact, going 22 hours without sleep can impair reaction time more than four alcoholic drinks can.

Better Overall Performance

Good sleep is essential if you want to maintain peak fitness, both physically and mentally. It improves accuracy, sprint times, and many other metrics of success in sports. Studies have shown these improvements across a variety of sports, including tennis, basketball, weightlifting, swimming, and more. One college football coach always used the mantra: “Out-sleep our opponents: that’s the key to getting stronger.”

How to Sleep Like a Pro Athlete

While most folks aren’t competing to bring home the gold, sleep is just as important for non-athletes. How can you learn to sleep like an Olympian? Here are some things that the pros implement into their sleep routine that will be just as beneficial for you:

Rethink Your Sleep Environment

Evaluate the temperature, light, and noise level of your bedroom. “Make your room like a cave,” says Cheri Mah, sleep expert at the University of California San Francisco. “You want it to be really dark, quiet, and cool.”

For darkness, look at installing some blackout curtains over your windows, or start using an eye mask. For temperature, too cool is better than too warm. Set your thermostat between 60 and 70 degrees, and have extra blankets close by in case you wake up cold.

For noise control, think white noise—it helps to block out sudden intrusive noises, like a door slamming or a dog barking. Use earplugs or a fan, or invest in a quality sound machine. There are also many “white noise” smartphone apps, both free and paid, that offer similar benefits.

Develop a Wind-Down Routine

Your wind-down routine should last 20-30 minutes; it should be relaxing and get you ready for a restful sleep. “Reading is great—a real book, not an iPad or phone that emits blue frequencies of light, which can negatively impact sleep,” says Mah. If you do have to read from a screen, there are apps you can install that overlay the display with an orange or red tint, eliminating the blue light that can cause sleep difficulty. Stretching or yoga is another good wind-down option.

Embracing the wind-down routine will also give you a tool to combat instances or periods of anxiety. The night before a high school or college basketball game, I’d sometimes get pre-game jitters that made it hard to sleep. But when I took time before bed to relax, it was easier for me to fall asleep. The more consistent I became with a schedule, the better I felt.

Approach sleep as a ritual: Train your body to recognize the cues of bedtime, and before long you’ll be falling asleep faster and deeper.

If you train your body to recognize the cues of bedtime, you’ll soon fall asleep faster and deeper. Click To Tweet

Another component is the idea of “protecting the bedroom.” Keep work, electronics, entertainment, and other potential stress-inducers away from the area that you sleep in, so your body doesn’t begin to associate stress or tension with your bed. Training your body to recognize that the bedroom is only for sleeping and intimacy will allow it to relax more quickly, and also helps reinforce the sleeping ritual.

Stick to a Schedule

Decide on specific bedtimes and wake-up times, and be consistent with them. Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day will allow your body to regulate its internal clock, which in turn can often improve your quality of sleep. A regulated internal clock naturally teaches your body when to start falling asleep, and when to start returning to consciousness, which can help with insomnia and night waking. It might be difficult at first, but the effort will pay off.

Additionally, consider following the maxim: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy and wise.” Not everyone is a morning person, but setting an early schedule might be just the change you need to transform your quality of sleep.

I wasn’t a morning person until I was in high school. I made a choice to start waking up early before school so I could train for basketball. I would wake up three days a week and play ball at 6:00 a.m. for an hour. At first, it was super difficult and I always felt tired. But after consistently following that schedule, I started to feel and perform at a higher level.

Going to bed early and waking up early really made a difference in my training. I got more done and was more productive the rest of the day. Honestly, developing healthy habits and long hours of hard work helped me to get good enough to play intercollegiate ball.

Make Use of Bright Light and Exercise

What your body does during waking hours can have a big effect on how it rests— namely, the quality of sleep. Vigorous, daily exercise can trigger deeper, more restful sleep and even light exercise has been shown to cause solid improvements. Enjoying bright sunshine in the morning can also help reinforce circadian rhythms, but be careful to avoid too harsh or bright artificial light in the evening.

What your body does during waking hours can have a big effect on how it rests—i.e., sleep quality. Click To Tweet

Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine

The reasons for skipping caffeine at night are obvious, as its primary function is to wake us up. Keep in mind that it has a half-life of approximately six hours, so you’ll want to start avoiding it just before dinnertime.

While avoiding alcohol may seem counterintuitive since it can make people sleepy, the drowsiness doesn’t last. As your alcohol levels start to fall during the night, it disrupts your sleep and makes you groggy and sluggish in the morning. Say “no” to the nightcap!

Aim for Seven to Nine Hours

How much sleep do athletes need? Pro athletes typically need more than most—it’s recommended that they get 8-10 hours every night. But for the average adult, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night to avoid the effects of chronic sleep deprivation. The average teenager requires even more: between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep at night, but studies have shown that less than 15% of teens get more than 8.5 hours. Individual needs may vary, however, so take into account how rested you feel and schedule more sleep if need be.

It’s not always easy to make this happen. Work, family commitments, play—many competing priorities or temptations can pull us away from a night of restful sleep. When I asked my cousin how much sleep he tries to get, he told me: “Personally, I choose to go to bed fairly early at 10:00 p.m. This was sometimes hard because in college a lot of parties and activities are going on. But getting a good rest is always worth it.”

Don’t Nap

While short 20-minute power naps certainly have their benefits, try avoiding naps altogether–particularly in the afternoon–if sleeping at night becomes an issue for you. Napping can disrupt your body’s natural sleep cycle and circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep at night.

Invest in High-Quality Sleep Materials

You may think it doesn’t make much of a difference, but what you sleep on can have a major impact on the quality of sleep you’re getting. Your mattress should be comfortable yet supportive, and remember that most mattresses have a lifespan of 9-10 years, so it’s important to replace them when they’re no longer doing their job effectively. Evaluate your sleep positions and make a pillow decision based on that: Side and back sleepers need a firmer pillow, while stomach sleepers need something flatter.

Start with a Few Sleep Strategies

Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep on your decisions and performance. Click To Tweet

Even just implementing one or two of these strategies will improve your sleep quality, help you feel more rested in the morning, and improve your performance throughout your day. So, whether you are an athlete or coach, don’t underestimate the importance of sleep. You’ll be surprised by how much a healthy sleeping pattern will better your decisions and performance.

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Ryan Skidmore

Ryan Skidmore is a writer for Purple. He currently lives in Utah with his family, and is always researching the latest trends in sports, fitness, and health. He played high school and Division II collegiate basketball. In his spare time, he likes to play basketball, lift weights, and golf.

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