As a Casual Athlete, Do I Need More Sleep?

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Perhaps it's because I'm secretly looking for an excuse to decline plans or hit snooze a time or two, but as a casual athlete who devotes her free time to training for marathons and signing up for a handful of workout classes, I've always assumed that my body needs a tad more rest than others. It may make sense that athletes need more sleep, but as it turns out there's a little more to the story than that.

Do athletes need more sleep?

In short, probably not. According to Alcibiades Rodriguez, MD, director of the sleep center at NYU Langone Health, it's recommended that athletes receive between seven to nine hours of sleep — just like anybody else. Of course, the exact "right" amount of sleep can and will differ from athlete to athlete, but ultimately, how much sleep an athlete requires depends on their activity and individual recovery.

Is there a relationship between sleep and performance?

There's a reason the term "waking up on the wrong side of the bed" exists: the quality of your sleep matters. Just as a poor night of sleep quality can make you grumpy and groggy and throw off your day, a poor quality of sleep in athletes can have some consequences. But it may not be quite what you think.

"Sleep is an essential component of health and well-being, with significant impact on physical development, cognition, quality of life, and social interaction," Dr. Rodriguez explained. "Speed and power seems to be reduced with sleep deprivation." In a study entitled "Sleep and Performance" by Andrew M. Watson, MD, MS, that appeared in the American College of Sports Medicine, "Sleep deprivation and even minimal amounts of sleep restriction have been consistently shown to impair accuracy in athletic events, whereas accuracy has been found to improve after sleep extension."

So how does sleep affect performance? Well, it may come down to simply what happens while we sleep.

During N3 sleep (the stage in which the body heals and repairs itself), slow-wave sleep growth hormone is released, which promotes muscle growth and repair, Dr. Rodriguez explains. What's more, sleep can help the immune system. So if you're not getting enough sleep — or enough quality sleep — your body may not be able to repair itself properly and keep your immune system up to date.

"Additionally, stress and anxiety before a competition may limit your sleep time," Dr. Rodriguez added. For athletes who may feel the pressures of races, long training runs, and extensive goals, sleep may actually be interrupted by stress.

What about sleep and injury?

Although the exact mechanism is unknown, decreased cognition, accuracy, and muscle repair has been noted in some sleep studies, Dr. Rodriguez explained. In the same study previously mentioned, the relationship between sleep loss and injury may be related to resulting impairments in reaction time and cognitive function after sleep deprivation that could predispose to an athlete to injury. What's more, impaired sleep may contribute to higher levels of fatigue that can similarly contribute to injury risk in athletes, according to the study.

What can athletes do to stay rested?

Although there isn't a clearly defined link between your workout and your night of sleep, there's definitely a relationship between how the body recovers at night and how you physically and cognitively feel, which can in turn affect your perceived performance.

So what can athletes like myself do to stay rested and ready for intense training? The key is in consistency. Dr. Rodriguez says to establish a sleep schedule, consume a healthy diet and avoid eating too late, avoid consuming too much alcohol prior to bed, and refrain from exercising too late. "Decrease daytime caffeine or stimulants and be sure your sleep environment is quiet and dark," he added.

For me, this comes in the form of a regular routine of scheduling my workouts just as I would a work meeting, laying out my UA Charged Impulse Running Shoes ($75) for the next morning, and waking up at the same time each morning — regardless of whether I'm training for a race or not.

Of course, if you find you're having difficulty sleeping, it may be time to consult a sleep specialist to see if your trouble is related to a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia. And if stress or anxiety are to blame, consider consulting a mental health specialist.