Sleep Health

Want to know a secret to better sports performance? It’s sleep


When you imagine what makes a champion athlete, you may think of two key factors: high-intensity training and a high-performance diet.

But want to know the secret ingredient to their success? It’s rest and recovery…or specifically, getting a good night’s sleep. Many of the world’s greatest athletes have revealed their reliance on good sleep for peak performance.

Colombian professional road racing cyclist, Rigoberto Urán for instance lives by the adage: ‘Bike races are won in bed’.1

Urán is currently competing in the 2023 Tour de France, known as one of the most gruelling sporting competitions in the world, with 23 days of non-stop racing covering around 3,500km.

Commenting last year on the tour, he said, ‘The main thing at the Tour de France is sleeping well and recovering every night. The nights are very important. I always sleep eight hours’.1

Urán is correct. Sleep helps your body to recover by giving your heart a rest and allowing your cells and tissues to repair.2  

How sleep affects athletic performance

Studies have shown that athletes who achieve better quality sleep can have greater accuracy, speed and reaction times in sports such as basketball,3 tennis4 and swimming.4

Research also suggests that sleep quality can be linked to injuries.5 Just as athletes in training need to consume more calories to fuel themselves, they may need more sleep to allow their bodies to repair themselves. Muscle tissue repair is especially important if you work out a lot.6

According to Australian para-powerlifter and Commonwealth Games champion, Ben Wright, sleep is the best recovery you can give your body. Powerlifting is very strenuous, and for Ben, getting a full eight hours of sleep helps him recover from training sessions in the gym a lot easier.

‘Good quality sleep is the reason I’ve been able to represent Australia at three Commonwealth games,’ said Wright.7 

Why sleep is a game-changer

When every decision or millisecond counts, how well you sleep can make or break your physical performance. It’s no wonder elite athletes, coaches and managers are becoming more interested in sleep in recent years.

In sports such as football, basketball and cycling, athletes and teams are hiring specialist sleep experts and doctors to help them achieve an improved performance. This might mean analysing sleep patterns, sleep duration and sleep schedules.

Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor at Harvard Medical School, is one of these go-to experts for professional sports teams in the Unites States. He’s even consulted with NASA and the Secret Service.

One of his most interesting pieces of advice is that the sleep after the event or game is most important. According to Czeisler, ‘If you don’t sleep the night after training, then even if you sleep the next night or the next night, you never learn’.7 This can be due to the important role of sleep in solidifying long-term memories.

The risks of disturbed sleep in athletes

With professional athletes spending a lot of their time travelling on planes and in hotel rooms or participating in media obligations and busy event schedules – getting enough sleep or keeping their natural circadian rhythm can be challenging. Then you’ve got the pressure of dealing with the public scrutiny that comes with representing your sport at the highest level on the world’s sporting stage. 

Some athletes in recent years have admitted to staying awake worrying about their performance. For instance, Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios revealed he struggled to fall asleep after finding out he was a Wimbledon finalist in 2022.10 

Scrolling through social media feeds late at night can also be too tempting for some athletes. One study showed that late night tweeting among NBA basketball players was linked to a change in performance.11  

Tips for a winning sleep performance

If you’re looking to optimise your rest and recovery, here are some tips to help get you started:

  • Create a sleep-friendly environment.

    From custom mattresses and pillows to blackout curtains and temperature-controlled rooms, many professional athletes and teams will leave nothing to chance to create the best sleep environment – and neither should you! 

    This doesn’t mean you must go out and spend lots of money. Just make sure you keep your room as dark as possible and aim for an optimal temperature for sleep (between 15-20 degrees Celsius).12

  • Avoid screentime before bed

    Overstimulation can be a particular problem for athletes. Especially when trying to relax after an adrenaline-rushing performance. But you don’t want to fall into the trap of going down a scrolling spiral. 

    It can be appealing to stay up late checking out your social media feeds, playing online games or binge-watching TV. But research tells us that bright screens before bed can impact the hormone melatonin that makes you sleepy. Just 1.5 hours or more of screen time on the tablet or laptop reduces your feeling of sleepiness.13

  • Make time for your sleep

    It’s important to allow yourself enough time post-training or exercise to relax before bed. If you’re active too late in the night, this can affect your sleep quality and quantity.14

    Make sure your bedtime is consistent and have a regular wind-down routine to calm your mind and body before bed. This could be an activity such as meditating, reading or having a warm shower or bath.

    It might not be easy to work on your sleep habits, but it will be worthwhile. Ultimately, you must decide whether you deserve to wake up feeling like a champion!


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