In 2015, the U.S. Ski team opened a new sleep center inside their USSA Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah. Now, America’s most elite skiers take naps between training sessions and have their sleep studied by experts to help enhance recovery and performance.
“After the morning training session, athletes can use the sleep center,” said Matt Whitcomb, coach for the U.S. Ski Team’s cross-country team. “We notice significant improvements in the performance in the athlete’s p.m. sessions when they’ve taken the necessary means to recovery. The athletes who are sleeping better perform better.”
For an endurance sport like skiing, especially at the top level where races are determined by milliseconds, healthy sleep can make the difference between a spot on the podium or in the stands.
And the U.S. Ski Team is hardly alone in realizing that for athletes, recovery is just as important as the hours of high-intensity training they’re logging. It’s the same in facilities across the country, whether they cater to footballers, hockey players, swimmers or bat-swingers. They all know that what you do after your sport — how you recover and for how long — has great consequences. And an integral part of that recovery? Sleep — and lots of it.
We spoke to sports scientists and endurance athletes in sports like cycling, swimming, and skiing to find out how the art of recovery has changed and why the right quality and quantity of sleep is critical for an athlete’s success.
1. Athletes Need More Rest. Period.
Average Americans say they get 6.8 hours of sleep a night, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. But elite athletes need considerably more sleep than the average person. A 2014 study published in Sports Medicine, which looked at 26 Olympic athletes from sports like speed skating, rowing, diving and others, found that athletes spent more time in bed than average folks — roughly eight-and-a-half hours per night.
Turns out, athletes may need even more sleep than that. In a study of collegiate swimmers by the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, researchers found that extending the swimmers’ sleep patterns to 10 hours per night for six to seven weeks kicked their performance up a notch. The athletes swam a 15-meter sprint .51 seconds faster, reacted .15 seconds quicker off the blocks, improved their turn time by .10 seconds and boosted their kick strokes by five kicks.
“Sleep needs vary between individuals and based on your sport,” says Amy Bender, a sleep scientist at Canada’s Centre for Sleep and Human Performance. “An endurance runner, for example, may need more sleep than a track athlete who’s throwing a discus. For the general population, seven to nine hours is the recommended amount. But we think athletes need even more than that.”
2. Good Sleep is Cumulative
“During competition, we have very early mornings and late nights,” says American swimmer Jessica Hardy, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 4 x 100 meter medley. “I will try to mimic the time that I will be going to bed after my races in the days leading up to it. If I’m well rested, I generally have more positive self-talk leading into a race.”
Hardy is onto something here: It’s well known that athletes don’t sleep well the nights before and during a competition, what with pre-competition jitters and other thoughts swirling in their heads. But it is possible to store up on sleep in the weeks prior to an event. Plus, new research shows that proper sleep or a lack thereof has cumulative, season-long effects.
“Those who aren’t getting the amount of sleep they need end up performing worse as the season progresses,” says Bender. “Sleep debt accumulates. Athletes who sleep less, like everyone else, may be more prone to injury or they may end up performing worse compared to someone who’s had good sleep throughout the season.”
3. Sometimes Sleep Trumps a Workout
A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Sports Science analyzed the impact of early-morning training on elite swimmers. It found that the nights before the athletes had 6 a.m. practice, they clocked an average of five hours of sleep. On nights preceding rest days, the swimmers spent more than seven hours sleeping.
Those findings showed that early-morning practice restricted the sleep patterns of the athletes and that chronic sleep deprivation of less than six hours a night negatively impacted physiological functioning, thus dampening the effects of the athletes’ training.
Translation: Sometimes, you need to skip the crack-of-dawn workout to log some necessary pillow time.
“A lack of sleep has been shown to increase your perceived exertion and reduce your time to exhaustion,” says Bender. “So if you wake up early to do a workout and you cut off your sleep, you’re not going to be getting the most out of your training session. You’re going to get exhausted quicker and you’ll think it’s harder than it really is.”
4. Getting Up Early? Go to Bed Early
“Sleep is the single most important thing I do,” says Utah-based ski mountaineer Noah Howell, who often rises at one or two in the morning to climb and ski big mountain objectives. “When I’m training, sleep is the one thing I won’t skimp on — I need my eight hours, plus a nap if I can. That helps me keep illness at bay and lets my body recover.”
If Howell is rising early, he makes a point to go to sleep early so he can be alert and focused when he’s in the mountains before sunrise. And on those nights when he doesn’t get enough sleep? “I can usually push through for the first few hours of the day and be OK, but many hours into a day-long objective, I start to feel drained and less energized.”
Research confirms Howell’s findings. “Most of the science suggests that athletes can still complete short high-intensity efforts after poor sleep, but longer endurance-based or repeated efforts are more affected, as are skill-based sports that require concentration and decision-making,” says Shona Halson, head of recovery at the Australian Institute of Sport. “For these longer tasks, it appears that the athlete experiences a higher perception of effort, so everything feels harder.”
5. Napping is a Necessity
“By nature I’m not one who likes taking naps. But when I was really building up for something massive like the Tour de France, I would focus on the things I could control: eating, sleeping, training,” says recently retired American cyclist Ted King, who competed in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2014. “I would eat super clean, I would sleep as much as possible — usually eight hours at night and then try to nap for 30 to 60 minutes every other day, and train hard.”
King says he found that taking a break — even just lying down to read a book if he couldn’t fall asleep midday — after a hard morning workout would benefit his recovery. “I recognize there are hormones released and physiological things that happen when you’re really sleeping, but I also think that purely being horizontal and relaxing your brain have huge benefits,” King says.
Naps are now considered essential for modern athletes looking to gain an edge. Researchers say just a short nap — 30 minutes or less — can mean the difference between winning and losing.
“It’s shown that those who nap for a short period of time during the day have better productivity throughout the day versus those who don’t nap,” says Bender. “There are psychological events occurring in the brain during sleep that can help with motor memory and even just a 20-minute nap has been found to reduce sleepiness, improve concentration and enhance motor performance.”