Sleep and training: the strategies to adopt


Sleep is a fundamental biological process for human health and plays an essential role in an athlete’s recovery process. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) weighed into this topic recently, stressing the importance of athletes getting the right amount and quality of sleep.

This is never more important than when we are still growing. Unfortunately, acute sleep deprivation is all too common in sport.

Factors that influence sleep in athletes

Numerous factors negatively impact how well athletes sleep. The major ones are probably training times, altitude, exposure to light sources, and the volume and intensity of training, but one also needs to take account of pre-race stress and nerves, long-haul flights – and especially the resultant jet-lag -, an athlete’s chronotype and so on.




For example, studies have shown that official competitions, especially when late in the evening (8:30 pm), can cause reduced sleep efficiency and a drop in recovery perception among professionals. The different types of sports also have an impact on athletes’ sleeping patterns.

Athletes who favour individual sports, such as running, triathlon or cycling, often have to train or race early in the morning. This leads to having to get up early. On the other side of the coin, team sports like football, volleyball and basketball often have matches at night. The consequences? Such athletes fall asleep later.

Luckily, various strategies have been developed to increase sleep quality and promote good sleeping habits for athletes. These are normally termed “sleep hygiene strategies”. While such strategies can be hard to adopt fully, their benefit is not in doubt. Let’s look at them.


The 6 good sleep strategies for athletes

1. Remove light sources from the room. Light is the primary regulator of our body clock. Plus, light inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body when to sleep. In short, light keeps you awake.


2. Turn off electronic devices (TV, PC, laptop, mobile) in bed. Why? The backlight from their screens emits blue light, which is very disruptive. In practice, this means they keep us awake and don’t help us sleep. A recent study has even shown how NBA players who use electronic devices in the evening or at night sleep less. And this leads to performing worse in the game the following day.


3. Control the room environment. A bedroom should be silent, dark and no warmer than 19° C. Excessively warm rooms are very disruptive for sleep. Our bodies produce melatonin when our internal body temperature drops.


4. Eat light meals. The time at which we eat and the nature of the meal play a key role. Light meals, with a mixture of carbohydrates and (some) protein at least two hours before going to bed facilitate sleep. On the other hand, heavy meals with plenty of alcohol or caffeine eaten shortly before hitting the hay tend to interfere with an athlete’s sleep.


5. Listen to “relaxing” music (not rock ‘n roll). The same holds for books. Such activities all help induce sleep. But they mustn’t be done in the bedroom. A bedroom should remain a place solely for sleeping at night.


6. Avoid heavy, length training in the evening. Vigorous physical activity in the evening can have a negative impact on how long it takes to fall asleep. Ideally, if possible, exercise should be done in the morning or afternoon, avoiding the evening and the night. Determining one’s own chronotype – i.e. whether one is a morning (lark) or a night (owl) person – can be useful in deciding on the best time to train.


In summary

Knowing, understanding and using these strategies is essential for anyone wanting to improve night-time sleep. An athlete who sleeps well reduces recovery time, cuts the risk of injury and improves physical effectiveness and performance.



  • Bonnar D, Bartel K, Kakoschke N, Lang C. Sleep interventions designed to improve athletic performance and recovery: a systematic review of current approaches. Sports Med. 2018;48(3):683–703.
  • Taylor L, Chrismas BCR, Dascombe B, Chamari K, Fowler PM. Sleep medication and athletic performance—the evidence for practitioners and future research directions. Front Physiol. 2016;7:83.
  • Vitale JA, Weydahl A. Chronotype, physical activity, and sport performance: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2017;47:1859–1868.
  • Vitale JA, Banfi G, Galbiati A, Ferini-Strambi L, La Torre A. Effect of a Night Game on Actigraphy-Based Sleep Quality and Perceived Recovery in Top-Level Volleyball Athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Per. 2019; 14, 265-269.
  • Rae DE, Stephenson KJ, Roden LC. Factors to consider when assessing diurnal variation in sports performance: the influence of chronotype and habitual training time-of-day.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015; 115, 1339–1349.
  • Jones JJ, Kirschen GW, Kancharla S, Hale L. Association between late-night tweeting and next-day game performance among professional basketball players. Sleep Health. 2019. 5(1):68-71.
  • Knufinke M, Nieuwenhuys A, Geurts SAE, Coenen AML, Kompier MAJ. Self-reported sleep quantity, quality and sleep hygiene in elite athletes. J Sleep Res. 2018; 27, 78–85.




Jacopo Vitale

    Jacopo Vitale is sports science, orthopaedics and chronobiology researcher at LaMSS - Laboratory of Movement and Sport Science at IRCCS Istituto Ortopedico Galeazzi in Milan. Jacopo was awarded a PhD in 2016 and has extensive knowledge of sleep and biological rhythms in athletes, and the one-to-one relationship between physical performance and night-time sleep. He has published over 30 works in international scientific journals and is a qualified fitness and conditioning coach. From 2013 to 2017, he headed the athletic staff of the first team of an American football team in Milan, “Rhinos Milano”, and he is still the strength and conditioning coach for Leone XIII Basket (another Milan team), and various national-level junior winter sport athletes.