Sleep Well//

What You Can Learn From Elite Athletes About Raising Your Game and Improving Your Performance With Quality Sleep

Read on for science-backed insights into how quality sleep drives success in sports and in life.

There’s nothing like waking up feeling refreshed and revitalized, with high energy that can power you through the entire day. For elite athletes, that energy is crucial — quality sleep is essential for optimal athletic performance. Every major sport is now focusing on the important role of sleep. Athletes, as well as their coaches, are learning that if they are well rested, they can up their game, improve their mental focus, and recover faster from injuries. If you are sleep deprived, you are likely to perform less well in everything — and the same holds true for those of us who aren’t sports pros.

That’s why, as a purpose driven company, Sleep Number is a proud partner of the NFL, helping players perform at their best with quality sleep. The goal: that individuals and teams will benefit from faster recovery and the many other mental and physical benefits associated with a great night of sleep. More than 2,000 players now have our smart beds and are learning how sleep impacts their performance on the field and in every aspect of life. They can see the correlation between their SleepIQ® score and their performance. Sleep Number, the NFL Players Association and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society are jointly pursuing the mission to advance player wellness and safety.  

NFL athletes like Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins have discovered the vital role of quality shut-eye. “It is so important to sleep well,” Cousins shared in my recent interview on Thrive. “As athletes, so much of the game is physical, but the mental side is also important. I make split-second decisions over and over again during a game. It’s important for me to have a clear mind and no fogginess. The better I sleep, the sharper my mind is and the clearer my decision-making is on game day,” said Cousins, who added that when he has slept well, “I’m my best self. I can think clearly. My brain chemistry, my focus and my attention to detail are based on my quality of sleep.”

More and more athletes are going on the record about how they prioritize sleep. NBA star LeBron James sleeps for an average of 12 hours a night and Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and tennis player Venus Williams get 10 hours a night. Tennis star Roger Federer has said, “If I don’t sleep 11 to 12 hours per day, it’s not right.” Justin Verlander, the Houston Astros’s pitcher — one of the best of his generation — has become a leading advocate for sleep. He credits good quality zzz’s for much of his success, aiming for 10 hours a night. “And if I need more, I’m not afraid to just sleep more,” he said. 

We now know categorically that sleep is a foundational pillar of health, along with good nutrition and exercise. Sleep deprivation used to be a badge of honor — we are determined to make sleep quality the new badge of honor with SleepIQ technology. Like me, Dr. Cheri Mah, M.D., M.S., a sleep scientist at the University of California San Francisco (U.C.S.F.) Human Performance Center is delighted that athletes like Cousins are becoming louder and prouder about sleep, making their views heard in the sporting arena and beyond. “It’s essential for every elite athlete to get a good night’s rest. I recommend eight to 10 hours for them (more than the seven to nine hours generally recommended for adults) because of the physiological load that athletes carry. Their training every day is usually much higher than weekend warriors and other people,” says Dr. Mah, who has worked with numerous teams including the Golden State Warriors, the San Francisco Giants, and the Philadelphia Eagles. As she points out, when athletes start to make changes and notice the benefits, they’re more likely to take sleep seriously.

While sleep challenges vary depending on the sport, the number of games played in a season, and travel, quality rest is vital for all athletes to be at the top of their game, says Dr. Mah. “In professional sports everyone wants a competitive edge and sleep is one area that teams previously hadn’t focused on.” Her extensive research includes this seminal study at Stanford University, in which members of Stanford’s men’s basketball team increased their nightly sleep by an average of 110 minutes. After several weeks, the extra rest led to a 9% boost in the players’ free-throw and three-point accuracy. “Good sleep is vital for optimizing cognitive performance, such as reaction time and decision-making, also enhancing motor skills and learning,” Dr. Mah notes.

That is true for everyone, whether you run marathons, log in hours at the gym, or simply take regular walks in your neighborhood. What works for athletes will work for us too, because we all need to perform well and be the best we can be. With that in mind, here are three steps you can take to improve your sleep and your performance.

Create an ideal sleeping environment

We spend a third of our life in bed and our sleep environment can be a formidable factor in how we sleep. Make your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable. Make sure the room is cool, which will help you stay asleep and lead to quality sleep. If you live in a noisier environment, white noise machines or a fan can be helpful to mask external noises.  

Get quality sleep

What you sleep on matters. Your mattress, pillow and bedding are a key factor in how well you sleep. Sleep Number 360 smart beds are helping NFL players learn from their SleepIQ® data, how to optimize their recovery and perform at their best — as you can too. The 360 smart bed takes thousands of biometric measurements each night, delivering personal insights into heart rate, breath rate, and movement, as well as natural sleep and wake cycles; it also provides your “SleepIQ® score.” Importantly, the 360® smart bed uses biosignal analysis to improve deep rest throughout the night, by making adjustments to the firmness, without requiring any action from the user. For athletes (and the rest of us), that is invaluable. In fact, our recent research shows that individuals who sleep on our beds and use their SleepIQ technology benefit from 15 additional minutes of quality sleep every night – this matters! Whatever bed you choose, make sure it’s supportive and comfortable.  

Establish a mindful wind-down routine

Having a calming and relaxing bedtime routine is a great way to end the day. That starts with going to bed at the same time each night, which helps the body anticipate regular sleep. Our internal body clock — or circadian rhythm — keeps our bodies in sync and if our cycle is disrupted, it can lead to health problems, so regular bedtimes are important. 

Your routine can include gentle stretches, perhaps with a foam roller, a warm shower and reading a real book or magazine. Avoid blue light exposure from screens so that you’re not triggering your brain to stay awake. “Blue light can prevent melatonin release and, therefore, sleep,” Dr. Mah adds. “I like to quiet the mind and relax before bed. Professional athletes often have racing minds, dwelling on their most recent game, for example. Different meditation practices and breathing techniques can be very helpful. And sometimes athletes incorporate biofeedback into their bedtime routine.”

People usually process their thoughts from the day just before bedtime or when they are in bed. Or they stay awake anticipating what needs to get done the following day. That can lead to rumination and worry. Dr. Mah and I agree that the simple process of completing the day and organizing your thoughts can be useful: “I encourage athletes to do something as simple as writing down a to-do list. “It’s helpful,” she says, “because it allows you to process your thoughts from the day and plan for tomorrow. If you’ve done that, you’ll have set yourself up for a more relaxing, stress-free sleep. 

You cannot underestimate the connection between sleep and performance. My goal is to help you realize your full potential by maximizing the benefits of a great night of sleep. Bedtime needs to be relaxing and peaceful. I like to spend the time before I go to sleep being thankful for my life blessings and reflecting on what brought me joy that day. Quality sleep keeps me calm, balanced and present, so I can fully appreciate the gifts of life. I hope you benefit from quality sleep too.

Sleep well, Dream Big, Shelly  

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