Work Hard, Play Hard, Sleep Hard

We’ve all heard the typical sayings used to motivate and comfort an athlete: “You can do it if you put your mind to it!”, “Eyes on the prize!”, and “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard!” However, a crucial piece of advice that athletes should be reminded of more often and not take lightly is to get a good night’s rest.  It’s funny to think that how well you perform can depend partly on how well you sleep and for how long. Whether it is observing changes in activity from sleep deprivation or sleep extension, multiple studies strongly suggest good sleep for improved athletic performance.

A study at Stanford University was done on the men’s varsity basketball team during the National Collegiate Athletic Association seasons from 2005 to 2008. Data was recorded during the basketball player’s normal sleeping hours and was used as a baseline to establish a sense of normal physical performance. The baseline was approximately 6.8 hours and was maintained for 2-4 weeks.  A period of extended sleep was then initiated and lasted for 5-7 weeks. Researchers compared free throw shots and field goal shots made by each participant after a specific number of attempts during baseline sleeping hours and during extended sleeping hours and found an increase in mean shooting percentage for the latter. Extended sleeping hours were also associated with decreased sprint times, faster reaction times, and lower self ratings of fatigue.

Another study focuses on both the effects of lack of sleep. A meta-analysis study described in the article “Sleep, circadian rhythms, and athletic performance” analyzed up to 113 already published articles related to sleep and exercise. Several articles indicated that sleep deprivation ranging from 30 to 60 hours did not affect certain muscle strengths and movements such as knee flexion torque, elbow flexion or extension strength. Endurance of the knee flexors and extensors was also not affected in 40 meter dashes. Although there were exceptions to some muscle movements, the data overall supported that activities of high power output for a short period of time are not affected by sleep deprivation of a couple nights or less. A possible explanation for these outcomes across different research studies is that sleep decreases motivation. Although the tasks mentioned require motivation, they do not require a high level of it. Therefore, sleep deprivation does not come in effect in short but high power activities.

The effect of sleep deprivation on activities of longer duration is another story however. One study from the meta-analysis reported that activities such as sprinting and 50 minute exercises of repeated deep squats were negatively affected by 30 hours of sleep deprivation. Additional studies showed that two to three nights of sleep deprivation decreased treadmill walking distances as well ergometer cycling distances. The decrease in distance coverage proposes that sleep deprivation leads to accelerated exhaustion and thus, has a significant effect on long duration physical performance.

All of the studies mentioned do not come without their flaws and limitations. There are other factors to consider such as the athletes’ training regimen, diet, and age as well as the sleep debt of the participants and time of day the activity is performed. What can be confirmed is that optimal sleep can help obtain optimal athletic performance. Who knew sleep could have so much power?


Mah, Cheri D., et al. “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players.” Sleep, vol. 34, no. 7, 2011, pp. 943–950., doi:10.5665/sleep.1132.

Thun, Eirunn, et al. “Sleep, Circadian Rhythms, and Athletic Performance.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, vol. 23, 2015, pp. 1–9., doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2014.11.003.

Rachanne Nabong