Sleep and the Endurance Athlete

October 7, 2023

Consistently obtaining enough sleep is imperative for endurance athletes. Performance aside, developing good sleep habits and obtaining enough sleep regularly provides endless benefits. From improved immunity to better weight management, reduced risk for chronic diseases, lower rates of stress and depression, better decision making and increased cognition.

For athletes who place greater demands on the body, sleep is essential. Specifically, sleeping greater than eight hours per night is associated with improved mood, improved energy levels and reduced risk of injury and illness in athletes.1 Consistently attaining greater than eight hours of sleep per night demonstrates greater endurance performance and greater maintenance of endurance performance.2 In one study, sleep was increased to 10 hours per day in collegiate swimmers, an average increase of two hours per night for several weeks. This resulted in improved sprint performances, faster reaction times, faster flip turns, improved kick strokes, improved mood, improved vigor and decreased fatigue.3

Conversely, studies show even one night of sleep deprivation in between consecutive days of training can negatively impact athletic performance.4  Insufficient sleep is also shown to negatively affect rating of perceived exertion, making exercise feel more difficult following sleep deprivation.5 The greater the sleep deprivation, the greater the RPE at the same work load.

While we inherently know and understand sleep is important for good health and good performance, it’s not always easy to get the sleep we need. Between the obligations of daily life and any stressors that come our way, falling asleep when we need to and sleeping restfully through the night does not always happen. Rather than focusing and worrying about any single night with less sleep, aim your focus on your sleep habits and sleep patterns and trends over time.

Wear your smart watch to bed and review your sleep and sleep cycles over the course of a month. At the same time, track how rested you feel each day, but try not to allow what the smart watch says to influence how you feel. The efficacy of sleep tracking devices is only so accurate. Do you notice any patterns or trends over time with the way you sleep or how rested you feel? Do you notice a difference with certain seasons of work? Do you notice differences in different seasons of training? Do you notice differences after drinking alcohol, no matter the amount?

Think about your sleep habits. Have you developed good habits around setting a specific bedtime and nighttime routine? Setting a specific bedtime and developing a healthy bedtime routine will help set your circadian rhythm, making it more likely you will fall asleep around the same time each night. There are many suggestions out there for developing a healthy bedtime routine. A great place to start would be to restrict the use of your phone, and any other devices, for 30 minutes prior to bedtime.  Consistently restricting mobile phone use close to bedtime reduces sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), reduces pre-sleep arousal and increases sleep duration.6

No matter your ability level in training and racing, consistently obtaining good sleep is crucial for good health and good performance. As an endurance athlete, aim for 8-10 hours of sleep per night, but don’t stress if you miss the boat once or twice. Focus on patterns and trends over time and be sure to set the phone aside 30 minutes prior to bedtime.

1Hamlin MJ, Deuchrass RW, Olsen PD, Choukri MA, Marshall HC, Lizamore CA, Leong C, Elliot CA. The Effect of Sleep Quality and Quantity on Athlete's Health and Perceived Training Quality. Front Sports Act Living. 2021 Sep 10;3:705650. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2021.705650. PMID: 34568820; PMCID: PMC8461238.

2Roberts SSH, Teo WP, Aisbett B, Warmington SA. Extended Sleep Maintains Endurance Performance Better than Normal or Restricted Sleep. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Dec;51(12):2516-2523. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002071. PMID: 31246714.

3Mah CD. Extended sleep and the effects on mood and athletic performance in collegiate swimmers. Sleep 2008; 31: (Suppl.) A128

4Chase JD, Roberson PA, Saunders MJ, Hargens TA, Womack CJ, Luden ND. One night of sleep restriction following heavy exercise impairs 3-km cycling time-trial performance in the morning. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017 Sep;42(9):909-915. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2016-0698. Epub 2017 May 3. PMID: 28467857.

5Myles WS. Sleep deprivation, physical fatigue, and the perception of exercise intensity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1985 Oct;17(5):580-4. PMID: 4068965.

6He JW, Tu ZH, Xiao L, Su T, Tang YX. Effect of restricting bedtime mobile phone use on sleep, arousal, mood, and working memory: A randomized pilot trial. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 10;15(2):e0228756. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0228756. PMID: 32040492; PMCID: PMC7010281.

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