As a physiotherapist, I make no claims to be a sleep expert.  However at a professional development course at the Australian Institute of Sport, I was very interested to learn about the importance of sleep to recovery and sporting performance.  What was also intriguing was just how much sleep some of the worlds top performing athletes get.  Roger Federer, one of the most amazing tennis players we may ever see, averages 11-12 hours per night.  American Basketball player Lebron James also averages 12 hours.  Tiger Woods is at the other end of the scale and averages just 4-5 hours of slumber time per night!

What Is Good Sleep?

The formal description of good sleep is;

  • you fall asleep within 30 minutes
  • you sleep through the night with brief awakenings
  • feeling refreshed within 1 hour of awakening 5-7 days a week.

Who Gets Enough? 

Probably not many of us.  Athletes however tend to suffer more that the general population. This may be due to the stress of performance, high caffeine intake, pain from injury or training, travel requirements, playing and training schedules and the use of electronic screens.  Many non elite athletes also have work and family commitments and can’t take time out to rest and recover after training sessions.

What are the Consequences of Lack of Sleep?

  • 3-4 nights of bad sleep does affect sporting performance particularly in team sports that require quick reaction times.
  • No sleep for 30 hours is detrimental on performance and is similar to having a blood alcohol level of 0.04.
  • Tasks that are of a long duration are more affected by lack of sleep, compared to short maximum efforts of concentration or effort.
  • The ability to recover from training is reduced due to changes in hormone levels that repair tissue.  This can lead to muscle loss.
  • Weight Gain.  There is an extended period to eat which doesn’t help, but the hormones that tell us if we are full or hungry also are affected which can lead to over eating all day long.
  • Immunity is compromised
  • Bone Health is also affected.  Stress fractures in the Israeli army were reduced by more than 60% by enforcing a minimum sleep regimen and managing their marching load.
  • An increase in negative mood and a decreased ability to regulate anger.

Recommendations To Improve Sleep

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. This will help your body clock get into an established pattern.
  • Establish a bed routine to help your brain learn to prepare for sleep. For example, have a glass of milk, shower, clean teeth, read a book or meditate, then lights out.
  • If you nap, make sure it doesn’t interfere with your normal night-time pattern.
  • Ensure the bed is comfortable and the temperature of the room is correct. (19 to 21 degrees is often recommended)
  • Remove TV, computers, internet and phones from the room.  The blue light transmitted from these devices can keep the brain in awake mode. Use night time modes on devices when possible if using an hour before bed.
  • Avoid thinking, planning and other mental activities in bed.  If you are prone to do this, try writing the “to do list” before you hop into bed.
  • There are specific breathing patterns that can trick the brain into sleep mode.  You will need to try a variety of techniques to find one that works well for you.  See Learn to Sleep Better with Breathing.
  • Try a short meditation such as “Starry Night”   to help your body get ready for sleep.  There are many guided meditations that can be found for free on YouTube to help calm your mind and drift off to sleep.  The free Australian mindfulness app  Smiling Mind is a great resource to help you incorporate regular sessions into your daily routine.
  • Our sense of smell can be a strong trigger to help the brain slow down and prepare for sleep. Lavender is just one of many essential oils that may facilitate sleep.  Find out more here.

Updated post by Physiotherapist Sandy Woolman March 2022