Why 8 Hours of Sleep Shouldn't Be the Goal for Athletes

It's easy to overlook the importance of sleep. Not enough athletes make the conscious decision to optimize this part of their life.

We have all heard that athletes need at least eight hours of sleep per night to perform at a high level.

But just how true is that? Is this one of those recommendations that gets tossed around like a game of hot potato without any real proof? And if eight hours is good, is more better?

Several sleep studies conducted at Stanford University on collegiate athletes from multiple sports show a clear correlation between sleep and athletic achievement. The more quality sleep you get, the better you play. These findings suggest that the oft-cited amount of eight hours of sleep per night likely falls well short of the optimal amount for athletes. Let's take a look at some sleep-centric research to see how better sleep seems to improve almost every athletic task you can imagine.

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We have all heard that athletes need at least eight hours of sleep per night to perform at a high level.

But just how true is that? Is this one of those recommendations that gets tossed around like a game of hot potato without any real proof? And if eight hours is good, is more better?

Several sleep studies conducted at Stanford University on collegiate athletes from multiple sports show a clear correlation between sleep and athletic achievement. The more quality sleep you get, the better you play. These findings suggest that the oft-cited amount of eight hours of sleep per night likely falls well short of the optimal amount for athletes. Let's take a look at some sleep-centric research to see how better sleep seems to improve almost every athletic task you can imagine.

More Sleep, Better Performance

Stanford University men's varsity basketball players extended their sleep from around eight hours per night to 10 hours per night and maintained their longer sleep schedule for 5-7 weeks. Here's what happened to the player's performance:

  • Increase in free-throw accuracy (+9%)
  • Increase in successful 3-point field goal attempts (+9.2%)
  • Improved reaction times
  • Improved sprint times
  • Improved mood and vigor
  • Decreased fatigue

Those are massive improvements. A 9.2% improvement in 3-point shooting percentage is particularly impressive. Last NBA season, that was the difference between a player like Klay Thompson and a player like Qunicy Acy. The former is one of the greatest sharpshooters in basketball history, while the later has played for five different teams in eight seasons and has never averaged more than 6.5 points per game. No disrespect to Acy, but these are the facts!

In another study, Stanford University's football players underwent 7-8 weeks of sleep extension. Average 20-yard shuttle time improved by 0.1 seconds, and so did the average 40-yard dash time. At the highest levels of competition, where a 10th of a second can literally make the difference between a win or loss, the impact that quality sleep has on an individual's performance can't be neglected!

Obtaining extra sleep also led to similar positive results in Stanford University swimmers. They swam a 15-meter sprint 0.51 seconds faster, reacted 0.15 seconds quicker off the blocks, improved turn time by 0.1 seconds, and increased kick strokes by five kicks. Alertness and mood improved, as well.

Not surprisingly, more sleep had a profound impact on the performance of Stanford's female tennis players, too. As these athletes moved from their habitual sleep/wake patterns to a consistent 10 hours of daily sleep, they ran faster and increased accuracy when serving and hitting the ball.

Cheri Mah, lead author of the Stanford sleep studies, concluded the research team's findings. "Traditionally, elite athletes dedicate numerous hours to daily practice, strength training and conditioning as well as work closely with nutritionists in hopes of optimizing their athletic performance. However, very little, if any, attention is focused on an athlete's sleeping patterns and habits. While most athletes and coaching staff may believe that sleep is an important contributing factor in sports, many do not realize that optimal or peak performance can only occur when an athlete's sleep and sleep habits are optimal."

How to Use This Information

Extended sleep offers numerous mental and physical benefits for athletes, including:

  • Improved shooting percentage
  • Improved sprint times
  • Improved reaction times
  • Improved mood
  • Improved vigor
  • Improved hand-eye coordination
  • Improved agility

It's easy to overlook the importance of sleep. Many athletes know they should make it a priority, but only a few make the conscious decision to get this part of their lives handled.

There are five simple steps you can take to boost your sleep tonight so you can be on top of your game tomorrow.

1. Stick to a pre-determined sleep schedule and aim for a minimum of 10 hours. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.

2. Get off your cellphone 30 minutes before you intend to fall asleep. Set it to automatically switch to "night mode" at sundown to decrease your exposure to blue light, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep. If you can't turn off your phone because you rely on it for an alarm, turn it to airplane mode and place it out of reach.

3. Blaring music, snoring roommates and loud traffic outside your apartment make falling asleep difficult. Use ear plugs to block out the noise, if necessary. Making your room as dark as possible will also aid in falling asleep faster and more deeply.

4. Even a low intake of alcohol impairs sleep quality. So quench your night time thirst with water, not Miller Lite or Vodka Red Bull shots.

5. If sleeping for 10 hours straight isn't an option due to a hectic work or school schedule, take naps to obtain additional sleep during the day.

Photo Credit: PeopleImages/iStock

References

Mah, CD et al. The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Sleep. 2011 Jul; 34(7): 943–950.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Getting Extra Sleep Improves the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Football Players." 27 May 2010. Retrieved from: https://aasm.org/getting-extra-sleep-improves-the-athletic-performance-of-collegiate-football-players.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Ongoing Study Continues to Show that Extra Sleep Improves Athletic Performance." 4 June 2008. Retrieved from: https://aasm.org/ongoing-study-continues-to-show-that-extra-sleep-improves-athletic-performance.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Study Shows Sleep Extension Improves Athletic Performance and Mood." 29 May 2009. Retrieved from: https://aasm.org/study-shows-sleep-extension-improves-athletic-performance-and-mood.

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Topics: RECOVERY | ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE | SLEEP