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Does a Lack of Sleep Affect an Athlete's Performance?

By Chris Sherwood ; Updated August 14, 2017

An athlete relies on many different factors for creating success, such as diet, strength training and practice. However, an often overlooked underlying factor which may also have an effect is the amount of sleep an athlete gets each night. With the Better Sleep Council reporting that seven in 10 Americans are not getting enough sleep to physically perform at their best each day, it's no wonder that sleep has become a buzz word in many athletic teams and organizations.

Reaction Time

One area of athletic performance that can be affected by not enough sleep is overall reaction time. Performance is markedly affected after staying awake for about three nights, notes Hans Van Dongen, Ph.D., and David Dinges, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania. However reaction time performance can also be affected if small amounts of sleep are lost over time -- such as an hour of sleep a night -- creating what researchers call a "sleep debt." Reaction time is necessary for everything from quick movements to catching a ball in sports.

Sustained Attention

Another area of athletic performance that may be affected by a lack of sleep is the ability to stay focused on the game. Along with reaction time, sustained attention also becomes affected after 88 hour of awake time or with the accrual of a substantial sleep debt.


Sleep is also necessary for the body to heal and recover after a physically demanding athletic training session, suggests athletic performance coordinator David Knight from the University of Wisconsin. Sleep allows the body to spend less energy resources on body processes needed while awake, and more energy resources towards helping muscles and other tissues heal and recover.


Athletes that get at least 10 hours of sleep during the weeks surrounding training and competition have been shown to perform better, states Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory. If 10 hours is not an option, aim for at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night; teen and young adult athletes should aim for nine or more hours. Use naps to help reduce tiredness, but note that naps can also cause "sleep inertia," or a feeling of fogginess or clumsiness right after waking up from the nap. Therefore, avoid taking naps directly before training or competition.

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