importance of sleep for athletes

Importance of Sleep - The Best Sports Performance Enhancer

March 13, 2019

Today, we are talking about the importance of SLEEP. One of the most underrated aspects of overall performance in fitness and sports, and life in general.

We are here to impugn the old saying, “I’ll sleep when I die”. A saying that is not only terribly counterproductive but also extremely detrimental to longevity and sports performance. If you plan to sleep when you die, you will be receiving that fate much sooner than if you simply sleep enough when you are alive. In the long run, you will have more time with adequate sleep and your time awake will be far more productive.

Neuroscientists have only recently begun to uncover all of the mysteries of sleep. We are writing this article to express the importance of the findings from our research into recent studies on sleep. It’s not easy to write this but…the facts are pretty much utterly terrifying - If you aren’t getting enough sleep, that is. 

In 2019, the scientific community's recognition on the importance of quality sleep is like the recognition of how cigarettes kill over half a century ago. The scary thing is, when everyone found out that cigarettes were causing cancer 50-some years ago, it’s not like everyone quit. Now, studies are going to hit the masses about the terrible effects of sleep deprivation…and do you think everyone will adjust their schedules to make sure they are getting the necessary amount of sleep? Not likely.

Lack of sleep is a pandemic that needs to be resolved.

Now, to put these "fatalist" views aside...

The good news is, this information on the importance of sleep can literally save lives.

Yes, some of the findings are scary, especially if you are someone who doesn’t sleep enough, however, there’s always time to change and it’s better late than never. Those who sleep as much as they should, and those who take (or will take, from now on) sleep seriously, will reap the benefits that come with good sleep. Understanding that proper sleep will boost the quality of your life is something we all can rejoice over.

It’s been said by Sleep Expert and Neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker that “Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting”.

If you make sure to get your zzz’s (naturally, meaning no medication), you can improve your brain and body better than any sports performance enhancer ever could. Side effect NOT included. Consistently getting good sleep is like steroids for the mind and body.

Recent studies prove that good sleep directly correlates to immense recovery and improved performance, which, of course, is vital for an athletes’ (and, in general, people’s) success. Thanks to these studies, doctors and athletic coaches are bolstering sleep just like they do exercise and nutrition. Sleep has always been considered important, of course, it’s basic knowledge, but it was still something that went by the wayside for many athletes. This is no longer the case. Trainers are constantly asking their athletes, “have you got enough sleep?”. This question is asked more than any other question these days.

Pro trainers and athletes know exactly how to optimize sleep. So the quality of sleep has improved as well.

In this article, we are discussing everything sleep, with an emphasis on sleep for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. We hope that after you finish reading this article you will be inspired to get that beauty rest each and every day, without fail.

importance of sleep

Two types of sleep:

  1. REM (rapid eye movement)
  2. NREM (non-rapid eye movement)

As these two states of sleep are so different from one another, neuroscientist/physiologists have identified the REM and NREM as distinct behavioral states.

During NREM, our brain has lower activity and consumes less energy. REM on the other hand, which is referred to as paradoxical sleep, has similar brain activity as when we are awake.

Sleep Cycles

One sleep cycle lasts around 90-110 minutes and depending on how long you sleep, there are 4-6 cycles on average per night.

Now, although there are two types of sleep, there are, in fact, four unique stages of sleep. Let’s breakdown the four stages of a sleep cycle.

Stage 1 - NREM

This stage occurs when you first fall asleep and it is very light sleep. It only lasts around 1-10 minutes. At this time, you can quickly return to fully awake. If you are awoken during the first stage, you may feel like you didn’t even fall asleep.

In this stage, your muscles are not restrained by your mind, although your breathing, body temperature, blood pressure and heartbeats do decrease slightly.

Stage 2 - NREM

In this stage, it is a bit more difficult to be woken up. Metabolic functions, blood pressure and body temperature further decrease. Stage 2 is also considered light sleep and it makes up 45% of our sleep.

Now, even though the true resting happens during the next two stages, there’s a lot of evidence now that light-sleep is also crucial, in that it boosts our ability to learn. One important thing neuroscientists are certain of is that this is the stage that prepares our bodies for deep sleep through the process of slowing down our metabolism.


The Deep Sleep stage is also known as ‘slow-wave sleep’ and it begins at around 45 minutes into a sleep cycle. Brain waves get slower and larger, and at this time, it is the most difficult to be woken up. You’ll likely show no reaction to sounds and movements around you. If you are awoken during deep sleep, you will feel disoriented for a few minutes.

It is in deep sleep where we get the most restorative benefits to our bodies, all the way down to a cellular level. A strong HGH hormone is triggered during Deep Sleep, sending us waves of it, which rejuvenates the cells throughout our body.

Furthermore, as the body has lower metabolic rates, heart rate, and use of oxygen, the cells recover from damages caused by oxidation. Although oxidation is a normal and necessary process, it is very important that we heal from it. This happens during deep sleep. Neuroscientist state that being awake is actually low-level brain damage. It is during sleep that our brain heals itself from the time spent being awake.

Deep sleep is the sleep that offers us a clean slate for the next day. It’s the most “refreshing” stage of sleep, as it erases the sleepiness that we have accumulated during the day.

Moreover, this is the time when our body repairs itself. Here are some benefits of getting the right amount of deep sleep:

  • Harvests energy to use for the next day
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Aids growth
  • Repairs muscles and tissues
  • Balances metabolism and blood sugar
  • Detoxifies brain
  • Memory consolidation
  • Learning and emotional processing and stabilization

Also, during Deep Sleep, our memories are processed, such as personal experiences and factual information.

Related: How cordyceps supplement improves sleep cycles


This is the stage where dreams are made (no-pun intended). Although our eyes are moving rapidly, our body paralyzes itself as to not act out the dreams.

Typically, you will experience REM sleep 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first REM sleep of the 4-6 sleep cycles per night will be the shortest, then it increases in the following cycles.

We know deep sleep’s main function is to repair the body, therefore REM sleep is what repairs the mind.

To this day, REM sleep is not completely understood, as are many mechanisms of the brain. What we do know is that a lack of REM sleep leads to many behavioral and physiological irregularities.

REM sleep heals the mind and consolidates information that you absorbed during the day, which helps your memory. This is managed by the brain through the formation of neural connections and replenishment of neurotransmitters. These same connections and replenishments emit those feel good chemicals, dopamine and serotonin, thus boosting your mood during the day. This is exactly why a lack of sleep leads to emotional instability.

Although some dreaming happens in light sleep stages, dreaming is the most prevalent during REM. Dreaming is super important for us as it is believed to help process emotions and solidify particular memories.

REM sleep is shown to relate to procedural memory, which is the memory that stores new techniques for solving problems and acquiring skills, along with new ways of moving our body (i.e. how we move our fingers for activities like playing the piano). With that, it becomes clear that practice doesn’t make perfect - practice with a good nights rest makes perfect. Our bodies are actually developing the skills we learned while we were awake during REM sleep.

what are the different sleep cycles

What’s the most important sleep stage?

There isn’t a “most important sleep stage”, even though one would conclude it’s Deep Sleep and/or REM sleep.

Evolution gave us all the stages of sleep for a reason, so each should be treated with equal importance.

With that being said, Deep Sleep and REM sleep are what gives us the most replenishment, both physically and mentally.

The most important thing is that you sleep enough hours each night and that your sleep cycles are that of a healthy, natural sleep pattern. You need Deep Sleep just as much as you need REM sleep. So, if you have any concern about the quality of sleep you are getting, you should run some tests. These days we have tools and technology that allows us to test our sleep fairly well.


Most adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per night. After the age of 60, sleep tends to be shorter, lighter and disrupted by multiple awakenings throughout the night.  

Serious athletes require more sleep, ranging from 8-10 hours, due to their strenuous activities during the day. People who do intense workouts 4-5 times a week need to get sleep in this range so they can completely recover and benefit from the rigorous workouts. Sleep is easily the number one element to athletic recovery.


Lebron James is the perfect example of a pro athlete who takes sleep extremely serious.

We listened to a recent Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Lebron James and Mike Mancias (James’ trainer), and they discussed how James aims for 8-10 hours of sleep per day, without fail, which is the biggest factor to his “never-ending” recovery regiment.

Lebron makes sure his bedroom is optimized for sleep, using a sleep app, temperature control, and other important factors for optimal sleep, which we will get into further below in the “Optimal Sleep” section.

Here is a quote from Mancias (taken from Tim Ferriss’ podcast).

"Number one is being very accountable in that room. Create an environment. For us, it's always, for LeBron, in his hotel room. Making sure the temperature is set at a particular—probably 68 to 7o degrees is probably optimal. Making sure the room is completely dark. You have no distractions. Trying to turn off all your electronics, televisions, phones, etc. Turn everything off probably a half hour to 45 minutes before you actually want to go to sleep. Really commit yourself to that. We all love to scroll on the internet and our social media accounts at night to catch up on everything, but you owe it yourself and you owe it your recovery to commit and create an environment. The room at optimal temperature, dark, dark room, comfortable bed.”

How many hours a night of deep sleep is good?

The right amount of deep sleep per night is around 62-110 minutes (13-23% of your sleep), however, being on the higher end of the spectrum is better for athletes. There doesn’t seem to be an issue with too much deep sleep. Of course, too much sleep isn’t good, but in regards to a 7-9 hour sleep, the more deep sleep the better.

With that being said, the amount of deep sleep one gets per night decreases with age. For those under 30, you might get up to two hours of deep sleep every night. However, for those over 65, you might only get about a half hour of deep sleep. This is likely because younger people need deep sleep for normal growth and development. But that’s not to say older people don’t need deep sleep, as it is beneficial for any age, especially if you are very physically active.

How much REM sleep should you get?

REM sleep makes up around 20-25% of sleep, on average. This is a healthy amount of REM. To put this into minutes, for 8 hours of sleep, you should be getting 96-120 minutes of REM sleep.

What about light sleep?

Sleep scientists concur that light sleep is important, but they don’t put a minimum or maximum number to aim for. The first two stages of sleep are considered the “default” stages, as it is essentially impossible to avoid or get a lack of light sleep…as long as you are sleeping, that is.

The Sad Truth For Americans:

  • 1 out of 2 American adults aren’t getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep.
  • 1 out of 3 are getting 6 hours or less.
  • The average american adult sleeps 6 hours and 31 minutes during the week (many with the thought that they will “make up for it on the weekend”).

American kids’ sleep stats are no better.

not enough deep sleep

Why aren’t people getting the sleep they need?

The biggest reason people aren’t getting enough sleep is because of such early start times for jobs, which in turn means very early start times for schools, as schools follow parents' work times…the need for round-the-clock entertainment doesn’t help either.

The sad thing is, it doesn’t even make sense in terms of productivity. Less sleep equals less productivity. It’s extremely counterproductive to the workplace.

Moreover, drowsy driving kills more people than alcohol or drugs combined. So not only is a lack of sleep caused by early work times unproductive and for kids a disadvantage to learning, it is dangerous.

And that’s not even considering the long term effects that a lack of sleep has on a person, which we will get into below in the lack of sleep section.

“I’ll catch up on sleep during the weekend”

You’ve definitely heard this one before.

Unfortunately, you can’t. Although you can make up for some sleep, there is no way you can make up for an entire week in one weekend. So, as much as we all wish that were possible, it’s just...not.

For example, if you were to pull an all-nighter, then the next day sleep all that you want, you’d only make up around 3-4 hours of the lost 8.

It’s really too bad our bodies can’t store sleep like we can fat :’(

“I’m good with 4-5 hours a night!”

You’ve probably heard this before too, and you probably have a friend who claims they can function perfectly on something like 5 or 6 hours of sleep. Sadly, this just isn’t true either. Nobody can. Literally, nobody.

Someone saying this to you is the same as someone who says “I drive better when I’m drunk” or “I’m a good drunk driver”. They may actually think that to be the reality, but it’s not.

“You don’t know you’re sleep deprived, when you’re sleep deprived”
- Sleep Expert and Neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker


Although naps have proven to be helpful in gaining some replenishment, they are not effective enough to regain the sleep we’ve lost.

how much sleep do i need

How sleep recovers your brain

While awake, your brain is creating adenosine. Adenosine is what allows you to remain energized, and stay #AlwaysReady.

However, the longer you are awake, the more adenosine your brain has to carry. In higher and higher concentrations, adenosine causes you to become sleepy. The only way you can release the adenosine and become refreshed again is to sleep. 

Thankfully, your internal alarm clock, which is called ‘circadian rhythm’, tells you when to wake up and when to sleep.

So, once you fall asleep, your adenosine levels lower and again, then your circadian rhythm tells you to wake, and your low levels of adenosine can start to increase, giving you the energy for the day.

Another component of how sleep recovers your brain is in regards to CSF.

Your brain is lined with a liquid full of nutrients called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). During the day, your brain cells absorb these nutrients from the CSF, then excretes the waste back into the CSF. The waste builds up throughout the day, and at the end of the day there’s simply too much of it. This causes the brain to function adversely.

Sleep is what resolves this everyday occurrence. As you sleep, channels open up, thus flushing out that day’s supply of CSF. Fresh CSF comes in, allowing you to awake with a “clean” brain.

How is CSF created and absorbed?

The CSF is created by the specialized ependymal cells in the choroid plexuses of the ventricles of the brain, and absorbed in the arachnoid granulations.

In the next section, we will discuss some ways that you can test your sleep cycles/stages to make sure you are in the healthy range.

HOW TO TEST YOUR SLEEP? Tracking Sleep Through Smart Technology

Before 2009, to actually test your sleep properly, you would need to go see a sleep doctor and get a bunch of wires connected from special monitors to your body. And, you’d have to sleep in their “lab”. This is definitely not conducive for a good night sleep. At least not the first night of testing. You’d need to get used to this, as much as possible, to get proper results.

Nowadays, we have smart technology that makes testing our sleep in depth, simple, and it can be done in our own home in our own bed. There are millions of people using apps and wearable tools, like bracelets, smart watches, and even headbands, to collect and analyze data from their sleep.

This smart technology records sounds and movement while you sleep. They record the hours you slept and it monitors your heartbeat and your breathing, which tells you mostly everything you need to know.

how important is sleep

This type of data will allow you to understand how you are sleeping. It will tell you how much deep sleep and REM sleep you are getting. How your sleep cycles look. And more…

You can send it to a sleep doctor to analyze or you can make informed analysis by reaching out online in certain forums or studying what a healthy, normal sleep pattern looks like.

If you have any concern about your sleep, you should definitely get on this. One of our friends recently did this and ultimately found out he has sleep apnea.

Now, this kind of test is good, but if you have serious concerns or find something peculiar about your sleep that requires more advanced testing (as smart technology is still relatively new), your doctor can set you up with a polysomnography (PSG).

A PSG effectively measures the following:

  • breathing rate
  • oxygen levels
  • body movements
  • heart rate
  • brain waves

Afterward, your doctor can study the results and recommend you treatment from there, if necessary.


What happens if you aren’t getting enough sleep? Here are the signs, symptoms and long term effects of not getting enough deep sleep, REM sleep, and sleep in general.

Not Getting 7-9 Hours of Sleep

Long Term Effects - Not getting enough quality sleep is one of the biggest causes of:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • stroke
  • early aging

Sleep is as important as food and water. Some side effects/signs of sleep deprivation are:

  • memory troubles
  • mood changes
  • weakened immunity
  • trouble concentrating
  • poor response time and increased risk of accidents
  • high blood pressure
  • weight gain
  • low sex drive
  • poor balance

Not Getting Enough Deep Sleep

A lack of the deep sleep stage is associated with particular disorders, such as:

  • sleepwalking
  • bedwetting
  • night terrors

Here are some effects of a lack of REM sleep:

  • physical and mental hardships
  • anxiety
  • aggression
  • hallucinations
  • trouble concentrations
  • increase in appetite for food and sex and pleasure seeking.

Too much or too little REM sleep

If you get too much REM, it has shown to lead to depression and anxiety because it replicates the same pathophysiology of major depressive disorder.  Too little REM can also cause anxiety issues. In regards to too much REM and depression, it has been shown in studies that suppression of REM leads to greater anti-depressant effects. Yet, this isn’t a good strategy for depression. Mother Nature most likely didn’t create REM to induce depressive symptoms, so the long term effects of suppressing REM sleep isn’t clear, but we can assume it isn’t conducive to a healthy functioning brain. The point is though, REM is a tricky beast. REM sleep is one of the least understood stages of sleep. What we can conclude is, getting in the healthy range is important. Thankfully, for most of us, it comes naturally.

Substance use can have a serious impact on REM sleep. The following substances are proven to suppress REM sleep:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Benzodiazepine medications
  • Opioid (narcotic) pain medications
  • Lithium
  • Antidepressant medications

sleep deprivation effects


  • Men that sleep 5 to 6 hours a night have levels of testosterone that are the same as people 6-10 years older than them.
  • Stages 3 and 4 are when your body gets the most replenishment. When you are sleeping in a foreign environment (i.e. hotel), one half of your brain will resist going into stages 3 and 4 as to keep you alert (great evolutionarily, not so much in the modern day).
  • When you get 6 hours or less of sleep, your time to physical exhaustion decreases by around 30%.
  • The less sleep you have the lower your max muscular strength, vertical jump, and max running speed.
  • People need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, once you get below 7, sleep doctors can actually measure impairments in the brain.
  • The most significant lifestyle factor known for developing Alzheimer’s Disease is a lack of sleep throughout ones life.
  • Once you reach 20 hours of being awake, you are physically and mentally impaired on the same level as if you were legally drunk.
  • A sleep study proved that individuals who were sleep deprived, experienced a 70% loss in a crucial anti-cancer fighting cell.
  • Another study uncovered that with one week of 6 hours of sleep per night, 711 genes become altered in their activity. Half of those 711 genes had an increase in activity. Those genes were the ones related to promotion of tumors, chronic inflammation and stress (thus cardiovascular disease as well). The other half of those genes were suppressed. The suppressed genes were related to immune response (therefore proving that we become immune deficient by a lack of sleep).

HOW TO SLEEP BETTER - 7 Tips For Optimal Sleep

Below we will go over how to create the optimal environment for a good night sleep (that means good deep sleep too!)…

1. Keep your room cool

In order to sleep, your brain must drop its temperature by 2-3°F. To help with this, studies show that sleeping naked or with less clothes can be somewhat helpful. Keeping your hands and feet warm can also help as it moves the blood away from your core and out to the surface.

Warm baths before bed are also great. A warm bath will cause vasodilation (that’s when you get rosy cheeks and red skin), which causes all of the blood to rush to the surface. When you get out, you have a big drop of heat from your body, which causes a decrease in your core body temperature.

Evolutionarily speaking, hunter gatherers would sleep 2 hours after night began as that was when temperatures started to drop. They would wake up about 30 minutes before sunrise due to temperatures starting to increase.

2. Regularity

Work on going to bed and waking up the same time every day. This means weekends too!

3. Stay away from screens and light

During the last hours of the day, turn most of the lights in your house off. Try not to use your phone or computer for around 1 hour before bed. The light will affect our natural release of melatonin.

4. Goldilocks principle

Don’t go to bed too full or too hungry. Eat around 2-3 hours before bed. Furthermore, diets that are high in sugar and low in fiber are shown to hinder good sleep. These kinds of diets cause less deep sleep and makes your sleep more fragmented throughout the night.


Melatonin is created naturally by our bodies. Sometimes, when you are traveling between timezones, our circadian rhythm gets thrown off, which causes our bodies to produce melatonin at the time it should have in our previous timezone. This is when melatonin is useful. It will help you get your sleep schedule adjusted to the new timezone. However, once your body is stable in a new timezone, melatonin doesn’t show to be effective for getting better sleep. In fact, for many people (who are stable in their timezone), taking melatonin is more of a placebo effect. With that being said, if its working, placebo or not, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be taking it. It won’t hurt.

6. Exercise

Exercising for 20-30 minutes a da is super effective for good sleep. So try to exercise daily. BUT, don’t exercise a few hours before you plan to go to bed, as your body needs time to come down from the workout to get into rest mode.

If you workout in the evening, say 6-8pm, try to avoid pre-workout drinks or caffeine. These will keep you awake even after you think the effects have worn off.

Related: Do Non-Stimulant Pre-workouts Actually Work?

7. Reduce Stress

Try to reduce stress, this will help your body and mind relax. It’s hard to sleep when your body is tense and your brain won’t stop churning out thoughts, especially negative ones. A good way to reduce stress is through mediation. Practice meditation to calm the mind. There’s a reason people have been practicing meditation for thousands of years. It works!

sleep and fitness

Best Supplements for Sleep

We don’t necessarily promote the use of supplements to sleep. The best way is to follow our optimal sleep recommendations above. However, there are some natural supplements that can’t be harmful to try, and if it works for you, great! Not all are exactly 100% proven, but there have been studies done on the following:

Top 9 Supplements for Sleep:

  • Melatonin (has shown to reduce the time people need to fall asleep and increase the total amount of sleep time. It may improve overall sleep quality in individuals suffering from sleep disorders)
  • Chamomile Extract (may decrease anxiety and initiate sleep)
  • Lavendar (may improve the quality of sleep)
  • Magnesium (important for brain function and heart health - may help quiet the mind and body, making it easier to fall asleep)
  • Valerian root (may improve sleep quality)
  • Glycine (may help you fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality)
  • Tryptophan (may help you fall asleep faster)
  • Ginkgo biloba (may help reduce stress, enhance relaxation and promote sleep)
  • L-Theanine (may help improve sleep and relaxation)

Check out our favorite supplement for improved sleep, enhanced mood and increased energy all in one! 

These are all worth a try.

 ***There are affiliate ads above that we will receive a small commission on any purchase you make.***

All in all, the key takeaway here is, we all need to get our 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Our lives depend on it. Sleep now, don’t wait until you die.

sleep for athletes


As a final takeaway, here are some further important points about sleep for athletes. 

REM Sleep for Athletes

Although physical recovery mostly comes from non-REM sleep, it’s not all physical when it comes to sports. Athletes need high levels of mental acuity. From memorizing plays to understanding the opponent to keeping stress levels low during a clutch moment, mental awareness and acuity is extremely critical and athletes need to be at their best.

Even with the most well rested body, an athlete can’t perform at his or her best without the ability to make good split second decisions. Sports are demanding, both physically and mentally.

Lack of Sleep in General

Studies show that a lack of sleep is the number one cause of athletic injuries.

Athletes who get enough sleep experience 60% fewer injuries and 54% less sickness. LeBron James is the perfect example. He has played in 94% of possible games in his career, and he has never missed a playoff game. Why? Because he makes sleep his biggest priority.

Sleep is not only for recovery, but it’s also for “prevention” as well.

Deep Sleep for Sports Recovery

When it comes to physical health, deep sleep is essential. Potent hormones, like GH and IGF-1, are released during deep sleep. These same growth hormones relate to physical health and performance.

During deep sleep, blood flow delivers restorative oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, tissues and cells, which aids in muscle recovery and growth.

When you don’t get enough deep sleep, you can’t heal and grow, which results in a loss of muscle mass. This affects your overall strength and endurance during workouts and during sporting activity.

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If you have any anecdotes or questions/comments regarding this post, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below. Sleep well people!

Source: Check out The Joe Rogan Experience – Sleep Expert and Neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker.

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