Does a lack of sleep affect an athlete’s performance?

sleeping effect on performance

Everyone grew up knowing the importance of a good night sleep, but how much effect does sleep deprivation have on performance and recovery? Is it really that bad to sleep only 3-5 hours before an important match?


Partial sleep deprivation stimulates the inflammatory response due to the production of pro-inflammatory markers like: TNF, NK, IL-1, IL-6, IL-7 and CRP. An increase in inflammatory markers results in more pain and is bad for your mood [1,2,3,4,5], besides that the concentration of antioxidants also lowered significantly. Read more about the role of inflammation in muscle soreness HERE.


When the inflammation increases the pain increases as well, but also the pain sensitivity elevates due to a lack of sleep. An large study published in ‘the journal of the international association for the study of pain’ in 2015 among 10412 participants showed a clear relationship between sleep deprivation and pain. During times of restricted sleep or total lack of sleep due to insomnia the pain sensitivity elevated significantly [7].

The opposite happens when the time spent sleeping increases, a research done by Roehrs [6] studied the pain threshold  of participants who slept 10 or 8 hours. The group who slept for 10 hours had a significantly higher pain threshold, complaining of pain less fast.

During times of restricted sleep or total lack of sleep due to insomnia the pain sensitivity elevated significantly [7].

sleeping performance

The group who slept for 10 hours had a significantly higher pain threshold, complaining of pain less fast [6].

Reaction time.

For every fast paced sport the reaction time of the athlete can be the difference between scoring a point or missing the tennis-, foot-,soccer- or rugby ball  completely.  The PVT (Psychomotor Vigilance Task) is often used to test reaction time in research. This is a simple test were participants look at a screen displaying a stopwatch,  the participants are asked to press on the screen as fast as possible when the stopwatch starts running. The time it took to press the screen is the reaction time.

Research shows that restricting sleep to 3-5 hours has a very negative effect on reaction time [8,9,10,11].

Consuming caffeine will make the performance somewhat better when you only sleep for 5 hours, but only for the first 2 days. If the sleep deprivation keeps going for more than 2 days, the caffeine will not help you anymore [12].

Trying to catch up sleep in the weekend is not going to work unfortunately, even after 3 good nights of sleep the damage done by sleep deprivation is not corrected.

The effect of sleep deprivation on performance.

A bad night’s sleep will negatively influence your performance the next day. Research done by Reilly [13] showed that after 3 short nights (of 3 hours) the participants were not able to perform as well as the control group. The participants scored significantly lower on the legpress, benchpress and deadlift. Also endurance is affected negatively after a few night’s with restricted sleep. Research done by Cheri mah [10] showed that participants who slept 4 hours for 3 days in a row experienced a significant decrease in performance during an endurance training.

bedroom, sleeping, performance

Skipping a night’s sleep is even worse, a sleep loss of 32 to 50 hours will result in a 7.7% to 20% downfall in performance [15,16,17,18,19]


Besides getting enough sleep the timing of the sleep is important also. The circadian rhythm is the body’s built in clock keeping a 24 hour rhythm. This means that your body automatically gets sleepy at night and awake in the morning. Due to the circadian rhythm your body’s temperature will rise during the day to a peak around 18.00, this is the moment the body can perform at it’s very best. If you would perform a workout in the morning and one in the evening you will see a major difference, favoring the evening session. This is nicely demonstrated in a study done by Souissi [14] were they compared losing sleep in the beginning with at the end of a night. Participants were divided in two groups, one group delayed bed time with 4 hours and the other group advanced rising time by 4 hours. Both groups slept the same amount of time but the group rising early performed significantly worse compared to the group who delayed bed time. Due to the circadian rhythm the body’s temperature of the early rising group had peaked earlier making it unable to perform as good as the delayed bed time group.

5 tips to increase quality of sleep

  • Try to make the bedroom cool and open a window for fresh air.
  • Minimize disturbing sounds/music in and around the bedroom.
  • Make the bedroom as dark as possible, no working lights or screens/televisions.
  • Stop using screens (TV, pc or telephone) one hour before bedtime.
  • Avoid a restless or noisy bed partner.

Ways to measure sleep.

Do you think you are getting enough (high quality) sleep? And do you want to avoid waking up in the deep sleeping phase resulting in a bad mood and a feeling of not being well-rested?  

There are a few apps to measure sleep like ‘Sleep cycle’, ‘Sleep as Android’ or ‘SleepBot’ found in the Appstore or Play store.

Wanna go pro?

Buy an activity tracker like Fitbit or Jawbone which will measure sleep more precise and gives feedback to improve sleep quality.

How much sleep do you need?

In 2013 the Canadian sport for life organization published a guide in which they advise coaches and athletes how much sleep is recommended. You can find the full guide HERE.

This is what is recommended:


Age and Gender                                             Hours sleep

Pro-athletes >18                                             8-10

Active individuals >18                                   7-9

Girls 15-21 or boys 16-23                              8-10

Girls 11-15 or boys 12-16                              9

Girls 8-11 or boys 9-12                                  9.5-10  

Besides a good night’s sleep they also recommend a powernap between 14.00 and 16.00. The powernap is not supposed to take longer than 30min and it is allowed to consume caffeine afterwards. Consuming caffeine before the powernap is even better, because the caffeine needs 30min to start working you will wake up more awake and fresh!


Sleep references

  1. The Role of Cytokines in Physiological Sleep Regulation
  2. Sleep Deprivation and Activation of Morning Levels of Cellular and Genomic Markers of Inflammation
  3. Partial Sleep Restriction Activates Immune Response-Related Gene Expression Pathways: Experimental and Epidemiological Studies in Humans
  4. Effect of sleep loss on C-Reactive protein, an inflammatory marker of cardiovascular risk 
  5. Sleep Restriction Increases the Risk of Developing Cardiovascular Diseases by Augmenting Proinflammatory Responses through IL-17 and CRP
  6. Pain Sensitivity and Recovery From Mild Chronic Sleep Loss
  7.  Sleep and pain sensitivity in adults
  8. Caffeine has little to no benefit after 3 nights of sleep restriction
  9. The Effect of Sleep Deprivation on Choice Reaction Time and Anaerobic Power of College Student Athletes
  10. Chronic sleep restriction negatively affects athletic performance
  11. Patterns of performance degradation and restoration during sleep restriction and subsequent recovery: a sleep dose-response study
  12. Caffeine has little to no benefit after 3 nights of sleep restriction
  13. The effect of partial sleep deprivation on weight-lifting performance
  14. Effect of Time of Day and Partial Sleep Deprivation on Short-Term, High-Power Output
  15. One night of sleep deprivation decreases treadmill endurance performance
  16. Intermittent-Sprint Performance and Muscle Glycogen after 30 h of Sleep Deprivation
  17. Effects of sleep deprivation on performance during submaximal and maximal exercise
  18. Effect of sleep deprivation on tolerance of prolonged exercise
  19. Sleep loss and the sympathoadrenal response to exercise

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