Did you know that getting enough zzzzzzs may actually improve your exercise performance? If you regularly cut sleep short, you may want to reconsider this practice.

Why is sleep so important for exercise, and what can you do to sleep longer and more deeply? Mike Bracko, EdD, FACSM, director of Dr. Bracko’s Fitness and of the Institute for Hockey Research, examines these questions.

Why Sleep Helps

During the night, we cycle through five stages of sleep. The stages include non–rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep (stages 1–4) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (stage 5).

Stage 3 and stage 4 are the important ones for exercise recovery. Stage 3 marks the beginning of deep sleep and is when human growth hormone (HGH) starts to be released. Stage 4, the deepest slow-wave sleep, helps to replenish physical and mental energy. During this stage, the body does most of its repair and regeneration work, thanks primarily to a continual release of HGH.

Because HGH is being released in stages 3 and 4, some fitness and sports performance trainers call sleep “the athlete’s steroid.” HGH helps maintain and repair muscles and cells, and it is key to improving athletic performance (McArdle, Katch & Katch 2009). As a result, you might argue that sleep is one key to fitness and sports performance. In reality, however, the key may lie in finding the correct balance of training, rest, nutrition and sleep.

How Long to Sleep?

How much sleep we need varies from person to person. Generally speaking, most adults need 7–9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night (National Sleep Foundation 2013), while most adults get 6.5 per night. Many people think that decreasing their sleep to minimum tolerability is harmless and also efficient because they can get more done. However, sleep loss accumulates into sleep debt. Over a 5-day workweek, a nightly sleep loss of 90 minutes builds into a 7.5-hour sleep debt by the week- end. This equates to losing one full night of sleep during the workweek. Losing 2 hours of sleep a night (sleeping 6 hours instead of 8) significantly impairs performance, attention, working memory, long-term memory and decision making (Alhola & Polo-Kantola 2007).


Try these strategies if you can’t seem to get enough shuteye:

  • Limit caffeine, particularly in the afternoon and evening.
  • Limit alcohol. Especially avoid excessive consumption before bed.
  • Try to quit tobacco use; nicotine is a stimulant.
  • Don’t use a computer, cell phone or handheld device in the 90 minutes before bedtime. LED lighting “tells” the brain to stay awake.
  • Limit television viewing before bed.
  • Lower the temperature in the house or bedroom before and during sleep. The body likes cooler temperatures. Many sleep doctors suggest lowering body temperature 90 minutes before bedtime.
  • Take a hot bath 90-120 minutes before bed.
  • Use the bed only for sleeping, lovemaking, and perhaps reading before sleep.
  • Nap only 15-20 minutes in the early afternoon, if necessary.
  • Keep a sleep diary to track patterns.
  • Eat 3-4 hours before bed and avoid heavy meals. Some evidence suggests that a light carbohydrate snack before bed helps sleep.
  • If possible, protect sleep from intrusions (unexpected noises); consider wearing earplugs.
  • If you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something else until your body and mind feel tired.
  • Meditate, listen to soothing music, or create other nighttime rituals that signal it’s time to sleep.
  • Use blackout curtains to block light.
  • Buy and use a reliable, effective alarm clock.
  • Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow.


Alhola, P., & Polo-Kantola, P. 2007. Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 3 (5), 553-67.

McArdle, W., Katch, F., & Katch, W. 2009. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Baltimore: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkens.

National Sleep Foundation. 2013. What happens when you sleep? http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep; accessed Sept. 2013.

Rosekind, M. 2008. Peak performance requires optimal sleep and alertness. Olympic Coach, 20 (2), 4-7.

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