Sleep, Rest and Active Recovery

Stress + Rest = Growth

Sleep is often the most overlooked part of in an athletes toolbox.  While muscles, nerves and systems are stressed during the day, the bulk of the growth comes during a quality night of sleep. Hard work is paramount to success, but it can become counterproductive without proper sleep and recovery.  Learning, restoring and developing are hindered by poor, insufficient sleep and dramatically enhanced by the converse, quality and quantity of sleep.

Building Skills: You learn when you sleep

Dr. Charles Czeisler is the director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard. He is known as The Sleep Doctor by many pro sport teams. Dr. Czeisler explains “Interestingly, if you don’t sleep the night after training, then even if you sleep the next night or the next night, you never learn.”

He explains that when we sleep, we go through 90-to-120-minute cycles.  There are two main types of sleep stages, within the cycles that are critical to skill development and learning: Deep Sleep and REM (rapid-eye-movement).  The early cycles contain more deep sleep and the later cycles have a higher percentage of REM sleep.

  • Deep sleep state. The brain consolidates memories and files away facts, movements and lessons.

  • REM sleep state. The brain integrates facts, movements and lessons into existing knowledge and skills.

Naps are great and they will be addressed later but, because of the short duration, they do not allow a person to get into the full range of the critical sleep stages so they don’t make up for a poor night of sleep. An athlete can not increase their skills without enough quality sleep.

Physically perform 10% better

Increasing your sleep time can dramatically increase in physical performance.

Cheri Mah, a researcher in the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, has shown in a sleep extension study with the Stanford Cardinals basketball team (NCAA Division 1 athletes) that dramatic increases in their physical performance came as a direct result of extending their sleep duration.

In the study, athletes used motion-sensing wristbands to determine how long they normally slept on averaging just over 6.5 hours a night.  The athletes were then told to try and sleep as much as they could for five to seven weeks, with a goal of 10 hours in bed each night. Their actual time asleep, went from an average of 6.5 hours to nearly 8.5 hours.  Note: Players abstained from drinking coffee and alcohol  during the study period. They were asked to take daytime naps when travel prohibited them from reaching the 10 hours of nighttime sleep.
At the end of the sleep extension period.

  • The athletes showed an average of 5% gain in speed in 282-foot sprints (16.2 seconds versus 15.5 seconds).

  • Shooting accuracy during the testing period also improved: Free throw percentages increased by 9 percent and 3-point field goal percentage increased by 9.2 percent.

  • Fatigue levels decreased with sleep extension.

  • Athletes reported improved focus and intensity for both practices and games.

Performance jumps shown in this study is the sort of gains that one normally associates with performance enhancing drugs. It appears that getting 2 additional hours will give an athlete the benefits of steroids without all of the physical and mental hazards.


Note: Many elite athletes, Lebron James,Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova for 10 or more hours a day.


Build and Recover for tomorrow

After the first hours of sleep our bodies flood our systems with cocktail of Anabolic Hormones, including testosterone and HGH.  The deep sleep cycle, which dominates the first 2 cycles, contains the largest percentage of the release. In men it is estimated that up to 75% of HGH is released during this time.  The release is also naturally tied our circadian rhythms, our natural internal clock.  While Anabolic Hormone levels will stay elevated throughout the night, the maximum surge of anabolic hormones can be extrapolated to give you the best results between 10 pm and 2 am.  

In order to get the maximum benefits of your natural anabolic levels the body must have the Building materials to build and repair with.  Studies have shown that ingesting 20-30 grams of protein before bedtime can give the body the best building materials for protein synthesis while your anabolic hormones are at peak levels.  (Note: A hard boiled egg is a perfect complete protein in a convintent package). It is important to start small when eating before bed because extra digestion can disrupt your sleep cycle.

Sleep trackers like fitbit give athletes actual data that aid and improve sleep


On professional sports teams you will find world class nappers. Mikaela Shiffrin, Rafael Nadal, Lebron James,  Russel Wilson and Steve Nash are all nappers. Getting better is hard work. Naps are another tool in an athletes arsenal.  5-30 minute naps give the brain and the body everything it needs to energize and refocus during the day. Studies conducted by NASA have shown up to a 35% improvement in judgement, alertness and energy in individuals who nap 5-30 minutes. However, napping longer than 35 minutes will take the athlete into deep sleep were the body wants to complete the sleep cycle. Waking up while in the later stages of a deep sleep cycle will cause a groggy feeling and that is often the exact opposite effect of a well-timed nap. This is known as sleep inertia.  Naps are important but, as mentioned before, they will not make up for the lack of sleep during the night.

In summary

Sleep is anything but passive. In our sleep we grow, integrate and recharge from the stresses of the day while preparing for tomorrow. Stress plus rest equals growth. Without sleep the equation is broken and contributes to a under recovering system where the athlete can not recover enough to balance out the stress. Elite athletes prioritize sleep in the same way that they prioritize workouts, practices and studying.  To get world class results form a world class workout or practice, athletes must have world class rest and recovery.


“Is not that they sleep because they are elite . They are elite because they sleep”
Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Steve Magness, Brad Stulberg