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Can Sleep Improve Your Athletic Performance?

WebMD Feature

Athletes spend a lot of money and effort trying to rack up every possible advantage before a competition -- from tubs of protein powder, to $100 compression shorts, to amino acid smoothies. Want a simpler and cheaper way? Go to bed an hour early.

"Getting enough sleep is crucial for athletic performance," says David Geier, MD, director of Sports Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. Studies have found that good sleep can improve speed, accuracy, and reaction time in athletes.

Whether you're an Olympic athlete, a weekend warrior, or a lunch-break walker, getting enough sleep is key for a lot of reasons. Here's why sleep is important -- along with some tips on how to get more of it.

How Much Sleep Do Athletes Need?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need about seven to nine hours of sleep a night. If you're an athlete in training, that may not be enough.

"Just as athletes need more calories than most people when they're in training, they need more sleep, too," says Geier. All the stress and grueling practices require more time to recover. 

Jim Thornton, president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association, recommends that an athlete in training should sleep about an hour extra. Some athletes manage this with an earlier bedtime. An afternoon nap can help, too, Thornton says.

How Sleep Affects Athletic Performance

Most athletes -- and people in general -- underestimate the importance of sleep, experts say.

"Not getting enough sleep doesn't only make you tired the next day," says Geier. "It has a big impact on what's happening inside your body."

Felicia Stoler, RD, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian in New Jersey, agrees. "Sleep is the time when your body repairs itself," she tells WebMD. "If we don't get enough sleep, we don't perform well."

So what does sleep deprivation do to your game?

  • Decreased energy. Sleep deprivation reduces your body's ability to store glycogen -- energy that you need during endurance events.
  • Worse decision making and reflexes. Studies have shown that athletes who don't get enough sleep are worse at making split-second decisions and less accurate.
  • Hormone changes. Not getting enough sleep can increase levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can slow down healing, increase the risk of injuries, and worsen memory. It also lowers levels of growth hormone that helps repair the body.

On the flip side, studies have found clear evidence that increasing sleep has real benefits for athletes.

A 2011 study tracked the Stanford University basketball team for several months. Players added an average of almost two hours of sleep a night. The results? Players increased their speed by 5%. Their free throws were 9% more accurate. They had faster reflexes and felt happier. Other studies have shown similar benefits for football players and other athletes.

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