How to Optimize Physical Performance by Sleeping

Pietari Nurmi
Aug 11 · 4 min read

There is a two-way connection between sleep and exercise. Physical activity improves sleep quality, rest, and recovery, and a good night's sleep together with consistent sleep-wake rhythm enhances physical performance. Appropriate sleeping practices help achieve better results in sports, and for an athlete, getting enough good quality sleep is critical. Sleep deprivation and sleep debt impair physical performance, and poor sleeping habits show in the results. 

Sleep – The Best Performance Enhancing Drug There Is

It's not only the athletes suffering from sleep deprivation that can profit from extra sleep. Even those who feel they are getting enough rest can use extra sleep to boost their performance to the next level. In one study, a team of basketball players was observed while tracking the amount of sleep they were getting. At first, the researchers advised them to sleep as they normally would for 2-4 weeks. After that, their performance was measured for the first time. In similar previous studies, the resting time of the athletes had then been restricted, and their performance had been measured again after a few weeks of sleep deprivation. However, in this study, the researchers told the athletes to sleep as much as they could during the following 5-7 weeks. The results were astonishing. Even though the athletes were already getting "enough" sleep, clocking a few hours more each night provided a massive boost to their performance and capabilities. Their sprinting times in a 282 feet sprint improved by 0.7 seconds, the hit rate of free throws increased by 9%, and the hit rate on 3-pointers increased by 9.2%. Usually, this level of improvement in the results can only be achieved with years of practice or by using prohibited substances.

Optimizing Your Sleep for Sports

Besides the amount of sleep, your circadian rhythm, and personal chronotype also affect your physical performance. Your performance level changes during the day, and the peak performance hours are highly individual. Morning Larks often achieve better results before or around noon. Their physical performance is at its best six hours after their natural wake-up time and begins slowly decreasing after that. Night Owls, on the other hand, need more to reach their full potential time after waking up. They hit their peak performance level not until 11 hours after their natural wake-up time. Some studies have found that Morning Larks tend to achieve slightly better athletic results than Night Owls, on average. However, it is good to remember that chronotype is not necessarily a static trait in you, but can change during the lifespan. You can also shift your chronotype by adjusting your sleeping practices and bedtime rhythm accordingly, as long as you remember to keep your sleep schedule consistent. 

Our bodily functions and rhythms are strongly tied to our daily routines. Therefore, the peak performance and optimal time to exercise also depends on your usual workout schedule. A recent study compared the results of professional swimmers at different times of the day. The swimmers who mainly exercised in the morning also achieved better results in the mornings and performed slightly worse in the evenings. The opposite was true for swimmers who preferred evenings over mornings in their workout schedule.

Habits From This Lesson

Additional Reading

Facer-Childs, E., & Brandstaetter, R. (2015). The impact of circadian phenotype and time since awakening on diurnal performance in athletes. Current Biology, 25(4), 518–522.

Mah, C. D., Mah, K. E., Kezirian, E. J., & Dement, W. C. (2011). The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Sleep, 34(7), 943–950.

Rae, D. E., Stephenson, K. J., & Roden, L. C. (2015). Factors to consider when assessing diurnal variation in sports performance: the influence of chronotype and habitual training time-of-day. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 115(6), 1339–1349.

Vitale, J. A., & Weydahl, A. (2017). Chronotype, Physical Activity, and Sport Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 47(9), 1859–1868.