Experts say lack of sleep can cause training injuries. We spoke to a sleep coach who works with professional athletes to find out how much sleep is enough – and pick up top tips on how to get it.

Quality sleep has long been linked to improved athletic performance, so it's no surprise that insufficient sleep can hinder long-term fitness gains. When scientists began exploring the damage stemming from inadequate slumber, they found a compelling reason to make sleep a priority: consistently under-sleeping (getting less than seven hours a night), can almost double your risk of injury.

This is where the idea of coaching the ‘sleep muscle’ comes in. Dr. Meeta Singh works with lots of different athletes in a coaching capacity, but she’s not your typical athletic coach. Dr. Singh is a sleep guru who coaches pro athletes to improve and optimize sleep, setting them up with education, science-backed tools and plenty of practice so that they can sleep their way to improved athletic prowess.

When we spoke to Dr. Singh she shared some simple insights that will help any exercise enthusiast to improve their sleep and consequently boost their athletic performance.

Read on to learn:

  • How sleep and our biological circadian rhythms influence athletic performance
  • The truth about naps
  • When to choose sleep over physical activity
  • A simple way to assess 'sleep debt' and identify your own personal sleep needs
  • Six expert tips that help athletes sleep smarter

How does sleep and our biological and circadian rhythms influence athletic performance?

“Sleep is essential for all aspects of athletic performance, including optimal reaction times, accuracy, optimal motor function, focus, motivation, glucose metabolism, memory and learning, as well as stress regulation – all of which are integral for athletic performance.

Our circadian rhythms are intrinsic time-keeping biological clocks that also influence athletic performance. In fact, many major indexes of athletic performance like muscle strength, reaction time, flexibility are influenced by the circadian clock. As is muscle growth and maintenance! I like to think of sleep as a circuit board with one switch – and if that switch fails, everything else will also break down.”

“I think of sleep as a circuit board with one switch – and if that switch fails, everything else will also break down.” Dr. Meeta Singh

What happens inside our body while we sleep that helps improve physical performance?

“Sleep allows for psychological, physiological and physical recovery. It is really providing recovery at the cellular level and it does so by forcing reduced physical activity and reduced engagement of the brain with the environment. The reduced physical activity allows for physical recovery to occur, while the reduced interaction of the brain with the environment allows mental recovery to occur. In fact, we now know that during sleep, the brain gets cleansed of waste material – akin to being power washed. Similarly, while the body is at rest, restorative functions and energy storage takes place.”

If you’re committed to being fit and healthy, what’s most important, getting up for an early workout, or enjoying a sleep in?

“I think they are both essential! … We know that exercise has tremendous health benefits, but sleep is a biological need that is essential for overall health. So if the choice was between getting regular sleep or getting regular exercise, I would say sleep gets precedence, as less regular exercise will not cause the same level of health issues as less sleep.

“The best solution is to go to sleep early enough to get your seven to nine hours of sleep, and schedule exercise at a time that won't be taken over by work or social obligations. That way you don’t have to decide between exercise and sleep. When you exercise also depends on whether you are a morning or an evening person, because asking a night owl to wake up and exercise is just plain wrong!”

What are the tell-tale signs you need more sleep?

“If you are feeling run down, exhausted and drowsy during situations you should normally be alert in, the answer is simple – get more sleep! I tell people that if they are getting more sleep on days that they are not working than they do on the days they are working, it’s an indication that they are playing catch up and they are sleep deprived and need more sleep. Other signs are having difficulty concentrating, reduced sex drive, increased irritability and anxiety.”

Should you focus on amount of sleep, timing of sleep, or quality of sleep?

“They are all important, although I think quantity comes before quality. I'll give you an example: it's like calories, you need to eat a certain number of calories to sustain life and it doesn’t really matter what the quality of the food is. Similarly, the quantity of sleep that you need is very important. It’s recommended that adults need seven to nine hours and if you get less than six hours of sleep, you're likely to be impacted.

The second most important aspect is sleep quality, which refers to how well you sleep. For adults, good quality sleep means that you typically fall asleep in 30 minutes or less, sleep soundly through the night with no more than one awakening, and drift back to sleep within 20 minutes if you do wake up. Keeping the bedroom cool, dark and quiet and avoiding caffeine, alcohol or electronic device use close to bedtime helps enhance this.

Timing is the third most important aspect of sleep. You want your sleep to be aligned to your biological sleep time and you want your sleep times to be as regular as possible.”

“If you get less than six hours of sleep, you're likely to be impacted ... Adding even half an hour extra helps … and never underestimate the power of a 20-minute nap.”

If you add more sleep to your day, what benefits can you expect?

“There is research that supports how adding 30 minutes of sleep is beneficial. The researchers adjusted the sleep schedule of professional baseball players to ensure they got an extra 30 minutes of sleep each night for five consecutive nights (from an average of 6.3 hours each night to 6.9 a night). It turns out, the added sleep dramatically improved the players’ response time – and that’s significant when you consider that it takes an estimated 400 milliseconds for a fastball to travel from the pitcher to the hitter. These finding are relevant to the general population too, as we are often also chronically sleep deprived (which means we’re sleeping less than seven hours each night). Adding even half an hour extra helps, and we should never underestimate the power of a 20-minute nap.”

Are naps a good thing?

“If you're unable to get seven to nine hours of sleep at night, then one way you can play catch-up is by taking a nap. But if you have problems falling asleep or staying asleep at night despite adequate opportunity to sleep, then napping is not a good idea. In this circumstance, napping can take away from your sleep drive, and you need this to fall asleep at night. The other thing to be careful about is the grogginess you might have after waking up from a nap – so don’t schedule a nap right before you have to do something important!”

How long does it take to enjoy the benefits of good sleep?

“Some aspects – like feeling sharper, more mentally focused, more alert, and in a better mood – may happen the next day. Some of the health-related aspects, like better cardiovascular function and any effect on your metabolism may happen more slowly.”

Does exercise help you sleep better?

“There is a bi-directional relationship between sleep quality and physical activity – exercise can improve deep sleep and sleeping better enhances the ability to exercise the next day. Exercise is a great stress buster, which allows you to sleep better. It can also tire you out and that is helpful. Exercising outdoors can help strengthen your circadian clock and that is always great. Working out vigorously too close to bedtime may over-stimulate the body and disturb sleep in some, but not in all people.”

Are everyone’s sleep needs different? How can you establish the amount of sleep you really need?

“Although there is some genetic variation, to function optimally most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per 24-hour period. A good method for determining your sleep need is to try and sleep without schedule constraints – during a two-week period, when you have a flexible schedule or perhaps are on vacation, pick a consistent bedtime and do not use an alarm clock to wake up. Chances are that for the first few days you will sleep longer because you'll be paying off your ‘sleep debt’, which is the amount of sleep deprivation that you've accumulated over a period of time. If you continue going to bed at the same time and allowing your body to wake up naturally, you will eventually establish a pattern where you get the same amount of sleep each night, probably in the range of seven to nine hours.”

  1. Keep your bedroom cool, dark and comfortable
  2. Be consistent and try to go to bed and wake up at the same time (including the weekends)
  3. Avoid caffeine (e.g. coffee, energy drinks and certain types of soda and tea) for at least three hours before bedtime. Avoid nicotine, which is also a stimulant. Alcohol may reduce time to fall asleep, but it can adversely impact sleep quality and should be avoided close to bedtime
  4. Avoid consuming excessive food and liquids at night as these may disrupt sleep through reflux and increased trips to the bathroom
  5. Avoid obsessive clock watching. Often, looking at the clock at night can increase mental activity rather than decrease it and make resuming sleep more difficult
  6. If you have difficulty falling asleep, you should avoid naps.

More sleep science …

Find out how to improve sleep quality, when to snooze and when to sweat, how sleep can impact your weight and much more.

Dr Meeta Singh is the Service Chief of Sleep Medicine and Medical Director at the Henry Ford Sleep Laboratory in Michigan where her work and research focuses on helping maximize performance in individual athletes and sports teams. She has served as a consultant for multiple NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA teams and worked with college sports teams to address sleep deprivation and jet lag and maximizing athletic performance. She also works with C-suite executives to help with jetlag management and enhancing sleep. Dr Singh is board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology as a Psychiatrist and Sleep Medicine subspecialist, and is a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine the Sleep Research Society.

Follow Dr Singh at LinkedIn or on Twitter @athletesleepmd1