This is the 1st in a 2-part series on sleep and how it impacts performance.  References for both portions will be included at the bottom of both posts.

Sleep Dictates Physical and Mental Performance

Sleep could very well be the most powerful recovery tool available to athletes. As powerful of a “performance enhancer” as sleep can be, poor sleep can have equally profound negative consequences. In a review on recovery strategies centered around the central nervous system (e.g. your brain), Rattray, Argus, Martin, Northey, and Driller (2015) point out that sub-optimal sleep is associated with compromised motivation and immune function, symptoms of over-reaching (i.e. the precursor to over training), and reductions in brain glycogen (i.e. fuel for brain activity). Sleep deprivation is also associated with increased levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol, along with markers of systemic inflammation (Wright et al, 2015). Halson (2014) adds that reducing sleep to <6 hours per night for 4 nights leads to the aforementioned changes, but also changes in blood sugar regulation and appetite, and that a night of sleep deprivation can lead to decreases in power, strength, repeat sprint ability, endurance and perceived effort.

In fact, according to Czeisler (2011), sleep deprivation leads to performance decrements comparable to having a blood alcohol level of 0.10%.

Simply, with sub-optimal sleep all aspects of performance relevant to team sport athletes are compromised. As a consequence, there’s a constant internal battle between tapping into mental reserves to maintain a high level of performance and a progressively decreased motivation to do so.

Much of this research focuses on sleep deprivation (e.g. not sleeping at all for 24-48 hours), which may have some application to college athletes pulling all-nighters to prepare for exams. Given how rare these circumstances are, though, it’s important to note that consistent mild sleep deprivation (e.g. less than 6 hours/night for several nights per week) can have similar influences as total sleep deprivation. These physical and mental performance decrements can appear after only two nights of partial sleep deprivation (Halson, 2014).

Furthermore, going to bed 2-2.5 hours later than normal can negatively affect sport-specific skills, such as serving accuracy in tennis (Reyner & Horne, 2013), and presumably shooting accuracy in sports like soccer, hockey, and basketball. Importantly, partial sleep deprivation leads to more pronounced performance impairments in the evening of the following day, which is when most competitions are scheduled (Thun, Bjorvatn, Flo, Harris, & Pallesen, 2015).

Dissecting Sleep Patterns

Sleep is divided into two major categories: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep, the latter of which is subdivided further into stages associated with increasing “depths” of sleep. REM and Deep Sleep have specific physiological advantages that warrant noting:

  • REM Sleep: Significant brain activity and dreaming, generally thought to improve memory and learning, including skill development
  • Deep Sleep (Slow Wave Sleep): Huge spike in growth hormone release and inhibitory effect on cortisol release that helps facilitate repair/growth of soft-tissue (e.g. muscle) and related to next-day wakefulness

While this is an oversimplification, you can think of REM sleep as mental recovery and deep sleep as physical recovery.

Sleep Monitoring

As is the approach I take with designing training programs, any specific sleep recommendations should be made with some sort of assessment/tracking information. There are dozens of options, but the overwhelming majority are all finding different ways to assess “actigraphy,” which uses body movement to make inferences about whether you’re awake or sleeping, and if sleeping, what stage of sleep you’re in.

While it’s not cheap, the device I like the best for this purpose is the Res Med S+. Not only does it provide a daily “Sleep Score” based on your total sleep, wake, REM, Light, and Deep sleep times, but it also ties in quick tips/education based on your specific scores to help you better address your limitation.

It also has a few basic questions about caffeine and alcohol consumption, and perceived stress levels throughout the day so you can start to understand the relationships that these things have with your personal sleep patterns. The education piece is better than anything else I’ve come across and will help keep you engaged on improving your sleep duration/quality, which is essential to long-term success.

Res Med S+ Feedback

My only qualm with actigraphy measures is they’re easily influenced by other people/animals in the bed. If you have a significant other or overly human-like pet (see below) sleeping with you, they’ll likely influence your scores to a varying degree depending on their movement.

Sleeping with Pets

My sleep quality is directly linked to whether Ruxin sleeps upside on my head, or on Emily’s.

As an alternative to actigraphy-based measures, there’s an app called “Sleep Rate” that ties in with Bluetooth HR monitors like the Polar H7 and provides very similar information to the S+. This is what I use when I travel. The heart rate strap is a little invasive, but I like this data because it’s a direct reflection of my physiology, not an inference from the cumulative movement patterns of the bed. The app itself is free, and with a ~$50 cost for the Polar H7 that can be used with other free apps on your phone for training purposes, it’s a worthwhile investment.

To Be Continued…

Part 2 of this series will have tips on how to optimize your sleep quality, including how to “trick” your brain into thinking it’s tired and effective supplements you’ve never heard of.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld


Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeaghniiat, K., Shirazi, M., Hedayati, M, & Rashidkhani, B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 17(12), 1161-1169.

Abeln, V., Kleinert, J., Struder, H., & Schneider, S. (2014). Brainwave entrainment for better sleep and post-sleep state of young elite soccer players – A pilot study. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(5), 393-402.

Czeisler, C. (2011). Impact of Sleepiness and Sleep Deficiency on Public Health – Utility of Biomarkers. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 7(5), S6-S8.

Gradisar, M., Wolfson, A., Harvey, A., Hale, L, Rosenberg, R. Czeisler, C. (2013). The Sleep and Technology Use of Americans: Findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America Poll. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9(12), 1291-1299.

Halson, S. (2014). Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine, 44, S13-S23.

Mah, C., Mah, K., Kezirian, E., & Dement, W. (2011). The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep, 34(7), 943-950.

Mah, C. (2008). Extended sleep and the effects on mood and athletic performance in collegiate swimmers. Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, June 9; Baltimore, MD.

Rattray, B., Argus, C, Martin, K., Northey, J., & Driller, M. (2015). Is it time to turn our attention toward central mechanisms for post-exertional recovery strategies and performance? Frontiers in Physiology, 6(79), 1-14.

Reyner, L, & Horne, J. (2013). Sleep restriction and serving accuracy in performance tennis players, and effects of caffeine. Physiology & Behavior, 120, 93-96.

Thun, E., Bjorvatn, B., Flo, E., Harris, A., & Pallesen, S. (2015). Sleep, circadian rhythms, and athletic performance. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 23, 1-9.

Waterhouse, J., Fukuda, Y., & Morita, T. (2012). Daily rhythms of the sleep-wake cycle. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 31, 5-18.

Wright, Jr., K., Drake, A., Frey, D., Fleshner, M., Desouza, C., Gronfier, C., Czeisler, C. (2015). Influence of sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment on cortisol inflammatory markers, and cytokine balance. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 47, 24-34.

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Today’s “Throwback Thursday” post covers three powerful strategies to maximize recovery. Interestingly, I wrote another post on this exact topic recently that almost identically mirrors my thought process from 2009. In other words, over 4 years after this post was written, what I view as three of the most powerful recovery strategies has not changed at all! You can check out the more recent post here: 3 Powerful Recovery Strategies for Athletes

You may be surprised by how simple these are. It’s not a matter of cracking some magic code; it’s a matter of taking care of the things you already know are important.

1) Drink PLENTY of water. Maintaining proper hydration has positive implications on both mental and physical performance.Bluntly, it means you’ll be smarter and feel better if you drink enough water.  Plenty is not 6-8 cups a day.  That’s BARELY adequate for completely sedentary people on low caloric diets; you should be drinking AT LEAST double that.If you’re like most people, you’re not even close.It’s never too late to start. Increase your water intake significantly.You’ll likely be making many more trips to the bathroom than you’re used to, but that will cut back within a couple weeks when your body gets used to being fueled properly.

2) Sleep! Everyone’s sleep needs are different, but in general, most people should be getting 7-9 hours of QUALITY sleep.As in wake up in a pool of drool sleep.Wake up with no feeling in your arm because you didn’t move all night sleep.DEEP, QUALITY sleep.If you get 7 and you consistently wake up feeling tired, you need more sleep to recover from the stresses you’re experiencing (through training or other aspects of your life). Remember that this should be consistent from night to night.Your body doesn’t adjust well to 5 days of a lack of rest during the week, and then two days of excessive sleep on the weekend.Make it a priority to get a good night’s sleep every night.

3) Proper Nutrition. This comes in two parts: General Nutrition, and training-specific nutrition.With regards to general nutrition, it’s important that you eat adequate calories from QUALITY sources.This includes as many servings of vegetables as you can tolerate throughout the day, fats from olive oil, nuts, and cold-water fish (e.g. salmon), and carbohydrates from whole grain/high fiber sources.As a reminder, your carbohydrate intake should be determined by your activity level.The more medium-high intensity activity you do, the more carbohydrates you need.Training-specific nutrition is pretty straight forward.Consuming a liquid source of simple carbohydrates and rapidly digesting protein (e.g. whey protein) immediately after your training helps replenish glycogen (read: carbohydrate) stores within the body and stimulate protein synthesis (read: rebuilding).It shouldn’t be hard to see why this would be advantageous.There’s now research to support consuming these “shakes” immediately before and/or during your training, so the nutrients are readily available as your body begins to break down.Think of it as “on the fly” recovery.Personally, I usually make a half shake and sip it while I train, then make another half shake and drink it immediately after.  For the complete nutrition guide, check out John Berardi’s Precision Nutrition program.

Following these three simple (well, at least they’re simple conceptually…maybe not so simple to implement) strategies will help you maximize your rate of recovery, allowing you to get the most out of your training.

Keep training SMART!

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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