The power of a good night’s sleep is never to be underestimated, especially in the context of a player’s performance in training or games. After engaging in strenuous activity such as a rugby match or even a heavy training session, sleep is crucial to the recovery process. Coaches must understand that increased training intensity requires increased sleep.

Figure 13. Optimal sleep may be considered the most effective recovery strategy. Evidence also points to optimal sleep as an ergogenic aid.

Most sport athletes are aware of the sensitive relationship between sleep and performance. Recent studies carried out by both Halson in 2014 and Venter in 2014, found that athletes rank insufficient sleep as one of the main hindrances to recovery. Other studies show that athletes in general are concerned about both the quantity and quality of their sleep. Among the most revealing findings from the many sport and sleep related studies are the following:

  • Athletes generally get less sleep than is recommended for healthy adults (Leeder et al 2012, Sargent et al 2014)
  • Training schedules impact on low habitual sleep duration (Sargent et al 2014, Gupta et al 2017)
  • Team sports players sleep more than individual sport athletes, with an average between 7.0 and 8.7 hours per night (Lastella et al 2014)
  • Increased training intensity and competition programmes increase the need for recovery and as a result the need for sleep in team sport players and individual sport athletes (Mah et al 2011, Bonnar et al 2018).


Sleep and injury

Chronic sleep disturbance has been linked to greater injury risk among individual athletes and team sport players. Several studies suggest that sleeping less than 8 hours a night is associated with increased injury risk. The results of some key studies on the subject are outlined in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Studies of injury and sleep relationship

Study Population Findings
Luke et al. (2011 360 young elite athletes (13.8 ± 2.6 years) The number of fatigue-related injuries was higher when athletes’ normal sleep duration was less than 6 hours per night
Milewski et al. (2014) 112 young athletes (15 ± 2 years) 112 young athletes (15 ± 2 years) The risk of injury was increased by 110% when athletes had less than 8 hours of sleep per night
Rosen et al. (2017) 340 young elite athletes (17 ± 1 years) If the athletes slept more than 8 hours per night, there was a 61% reduction in injury risk
Van Rosen et al. (2017) 496 adolescent elite athletes (17 ± 2 years) Decreased sleep volume (sleep prior to injury compared to the previous 4 weeks) was a risk factor for injury
Watson et al. (2017) 75 youth soccer players (16 ± 2 years) Sleep duration and quality were not significant predictors of injury

Increasing sleep in the form of naps and/or adjusted bedtime routines has been found to positively impact both cognitive and physical performance. Recently, Bonnar et al (2018) completed a systematic review of sleep interventions designed to improve athletic performance and recovery. From their findings, it was reported that interventions that increased sleep such as napping were beneficial to performance. Hennessy (2011) reported that in 68 elite rugby union players who supplemented their sleep in the week prior to match-play, their recovery following match-play was improved compared to those players who did not increase their sleep. The average increase in sleep was approximately 45 minutes per 24 hours and was usually achieved through afternoon naps. The extension methods involved supplementing sleep time through afternoon and pre-competition as well as training naps.

Sleep hygiene tips

Marshall and colleagues in 2016 produced the following recommendations on sleep hygiene which are designed to encourage a longer sleeping duration and better sleep quality:

  • Quiet environment, ensure a dark room with no light source present and maintain room temperature (18 ͦC)
  • Ensure bedding does not cause an environment that is too hot
  • Consistent sleep routine i.e. bedtime and wake up
  • nutritional timing. Avoid Caffeine and food/fluid intake leading up to sleep
  • restrict blue light. Avoid blue light (tv, computer, tablet before sleeping)
  • nap timing. Napping no later than mid-afternoon.