Reduced Quality Of Sleep In Athletes



This is part 2 of a series about the importance of sleep to athletes.  Part 1 was “Improve Athletic Performance By Taking A Nap.”  Please stay tuned (subscribe to this blog) for future installments and other interesting content.

Athletes commonly have reduced quality of sleep.  While the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults age 18-64, most of us, including athletes, don’t get this much.  For example, elite athletes in a recent study only obtained an average of 6.8 hours of sleep per night.  In another study of elite athletes, their total time in bed was 8.6 hours, but their sleep quality was poor with a total time asleep of only 6.9 hours.  Studies have been published that examine some aspects of the poor quality of sleep that many athletes experience.

One study explored whether the duration of exercise affects sleep.  In this study, 8 male athletes, age 23-42 years, had their sleep studied on four separate occasions.  The four occasions were as follows: after a day with no specific exercise, after a day of a 15 km run, after a day of a 42.2 km run (this is a marathon, folks), and after a day in which the athletes participated in an ultra-triathlon.  The athletes showed similar sleep patterns the first three days, but, after the ultra-triathlon, had significantly increased wakefulness and decreased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.  So, in these very fit endurance athletes, sustained exercise to the extent of running a marathon did not affect sleep, but an ultra-triathlon did affect sleep.

Another study, of 13 elite male cyclists (average age 23.9 years), investigated a possible mechanism for decreased REM sleep in athletes.  Each subject was studied during training after (not before) a race competition and in a recovery period in which there was no training or racing. Compared to levels during the recovery period, nighttime and daytime excretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine (catecholamines) was significantly elevated after exercise. Correlated with increased catecholamines, REM onset latency was significantly increased in the athletes during training.  The investigators concluded that the catecholamines that were produced in excess during intense exercise led to the alteration in sleep architecture.

Other studies have looked at the potential effects of the anxiety associated with competition on quality of sleep in athletes.  For example, a group of 632 German athletes were surveyed about the quality of their sleep before important competitions.  62.3% reported having poor sleep the night before an important competition over the prior 12 months.  The main difficulty was falling asleep and this was related to thoughts about the competition and nervousness.  Athletes in individual sports reported more difficulties than athletes in team sports.  In a similar study with largely similar results, a group of 283 elite Australian athletes (129 male, 157 female, average age 24 years) were surveyed about the quality of their sleep before important competitions. 64.0% reported worse sleep on at least one occasion in the nights prior to an important competition over the prior 12 months.  82.1% reported that their main problem with sleep was falling asleep.  The athletes thought that their difficulty falling asleep was related to thoughts about the competition and nervousness.  Interestingly, 59.1% of team-sport athletes and 32.7% of individual-sport athletes reported having no strategy to overcome poor sleep, such as relaxation and reading.

Aside from these reports, there are a lot of other common reasons for disrupted sleep in athletes, especially before competitions.  These include challenging travel schedules, meals at odd times or that take unusually large amounts of time (in a busy restaurant, for example), obligations with sponsors, extra preparation of gear before competitions (numerous times, I’ve reassembled my bike after shipping it in pieces in a bike box), noisy or uncomfortable hotel rooms, and family obligations.  It may be fair to say that it is difficult to NOT have disrupted sleep before competitions.

Quality sleep is an important aspect of an athlete’s preparation.  Because of lengthy competition and training, the increased excretion of catecholamines, anxiety associated with competitions, and the complexity of preparing for competitions, most athletes achieve less-than-optimal sleep at least part of the time.

When suffering on a race course it is helpful to remember that everybody else is suffering, too. Perhaps it would also be helpful to remember that we are also not alone in being sleep-deprived athletes.

Published March 18, 2015


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