Sleep, Recovery, and Athletic Performance

Americans are obsessed with sleep. We’re either studying it, trying to “hack” it so we can do it less, or we’re already doing it. If you’re one of the many Americans (nearly half!) that doesn’t get enough sleep, listen up: you’re setting yourself up for burnout and injury.

Sleep is responsible for all the recovery we do as humans; it helps our brain assimilate information and experiences from the day, it helps our bodies recover from the work we’ve done, and it ensures our bodies function properly. Without it, we have higher rates of cancer, obesity, dementia and all kinds of other cascading issues. It’s one of the most important physiological factors that determine performance, and can be a powerful tool for athletes.

Injury Prevention

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, with that number varying slightly depending on age, gender and activity level. Most of us aren’t getting an adequate amount of sleep on a regular basis, and nearly a third of us are living on six hours or less per night.

Sleep deprivation – especially when it’s chronic – is one of the best predictors of injury. Not only does it slow down our central nervous system, which is responsible for our body control, it makes it tough for our bodies to fully recover. In one study, researchers found a direct correlation between sleep deprivation and incidence of injury during athletic efforts. In fact, pulling just one all-nighter can significantly impair your reaction times, which can lead to impaired movement and injury.

To put it into perspective: many pro sports teams recommend their athletes get 10+ hours of sleep for optimal performance. When these athletes this kind of quality sleep, the effect is so powerful it’s almost like taking performance-enhancing drugs. So if you’ve ever felt like it’s a badge of honor to sleep less so you can work more, or felt like your performance is the same on several nights of bad sleep, you should go sleep on it!

Test your Central Nervous System (CNS) before a PR

We’re not saying that you shouldn’t work out if you haven’t had the perfect amount of sleep, but take a second to assess the purpose of your workout before you begin. Are you looking to set a PR, or would this day be better served if you took your ego out of the equation and focused on getting in some quality movement?

One of the best ways to know if your CNS is fried is to test your vertical leap. You can do this at home with a tape measure and piece of tape.

  1. Set a real vertical leap PR. Test yourself on a day when you’ve had plenty of sleep first to establish a baseline, then re-test whenever you’re feeling like you’re not at 100%.
  2. Warm up. Do a few air squats to get yourself ready to jump, rather than doing it cold.
  3. Set up. Put a piece of tape on your index finger, then place that side against the wall with your hand up.
  4. Jump. Get ready, and go! Stick your tape on the wall at the apex of your jump.
  5. Measure against your best day. If you’re more than a couple inches away from your best PR, then you know this might not be your best day to test a max or to take things a little easier in the gym.


Sleep is integral to our recovery from everyday stressors like breathing oxygen, digesting damaging food, dealing with emotional stress, and even exercise. Even though exercise is a good form of stress, our bodies still need time to grow our muscles and repair tissue damage. During sleep, we restore hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) that help our bodies repair tissue, build muscle, and increase bone density.

If you’re not sleeping enough, these processes are disrupted, resulting in impaired recovery and hormonal imbalances that can cascade into other issues over time. These hormones affect us so much that a good night’s rest can give us a real competitive advantage.

These hormones are so important to our recover and performance that top athletes often test positive for taking them as a supplement. Just like one night’s poor sleep can kick your testosterone levels into the dirt, it can also help you even out your hormones and get you back on the right path.

How do I improve my Sleep Habits?

  1. Turn on your phone’s nighttime setting at sunset. The blue light coming our phones emit has been shown to throw off our circadian rhythms by messing with our melatonin production. Turning on your phone’s nighttime setting allows your brain to shut down for the day while still being able to read in bed if that’s part of your pre-sleep ritual. Most smart phones these days have settings that will do this automatically if you select it.
  2. Eat high-quality, nutritious food, and time your meals. Eating a good diet can positively impact your sleep overall, but so can timing when you eat different types of food. This can have a positive effect no matter when you workout, but evening worker-outers, you can get a sort of two-for-one deal with this. Your body processes carbohydrates more efficiently post-workout, and planning to eat your starchy carbs at dinner promotes an insulin response that makes you sleepy. Win-win!
  3. Make a to-do list for tomorrow. Most of us end the day thinking about things that didn’t get finished today, as well as things that need to happen tomorrow. If this is a major reason you have trouble winding down to sleep, try writing a list for yourself as things come up. It’ll allow you to let go of it, rather than having it rolling around in your head all night.
  4. Download the Headspace app. Decompress from your day with this awesome app.
  5. Find a sleep ritual that works for you. If you don’t already have one, try and establish a pre-sleep ritual for yourself. It can be reading a book, meditating, taking a shower or something completely different, as long as it relaxes you and gets you ready to sleep.

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