Sleep Basics for Olympic Shooters

By Lindsay Thornton
USOC Sports Physiopsychologist

A few years ago, a bar graph showing the nighttime sleep and nap durations for well-known athletes circulated the internet. The graph has bars representing Roger Federer, Lebron James and Michelle Wie all getting 12 hours of sleep per night, and other athletes getting about nine hours. The viewer assumes this is every night. The image has been attributed to Zeo (a now defunct sleep monitor that can be worn on the head, providing useful information about quality and duration of sleep) but I am not sure how the data was collected. Did Federer, James and Wie sign up for overnight sleep studies? Nonetheless, I show this graph to coaches and athletes as food for thought and some respond with disbelief, while others nod in approval. The idea of spending nearly half one’s day sleeping doesn’t surprise them. A surge in sleep research has brought our attention to the role of sleep in athletic performance and recovery. This article summarizes some highlights from sleep research, and provides tips for shooters to consider for getting a good night’s rest. 

We have a genetically-determined need for sleep, and training demands can increase sleep requirements

Adults need anywhere from five to 10 hours of sleep per night, with most requiring between seven and nine hours. Athletes may be on the higher end of that normal range, requiring eight-to-nine hours of sleep or more, either all at night or most at night and the remainder from a daytime nap. Shooters who are younger likely require more. Given research shows that from teenage years through about 26, young adults need about nine hours and 15 minutes per night. Just like increased training intensity creates a greater need for calories, it creates a greater need for sleep. Athletes should be aware of periodizing their sleep to match their training cycles. For example, during heavy loads, schedules should be arranged and athletes should make getting more sleep a priority. Athletes should also know that they cannot successfully train themselves to sleep less. A fair amount of research has been done on this by the military, and while we may want to believe we can adapt to getting less sleep, we physically cannot. A price is paid, and in sport, this could include slower recovery due to less physical repair at night, greater likelihood for illness due to decreases in immune functioning at night, less opportunity for learning from training due to decreased memory consolidation time during sleep, and potentially suboptimal levels of performance in shooting.

What happens when athletes don’t get enough sleep?

Insufficient sleep has similar signs of overtraining in athletes: More negative moods, difficulty with motivation, and changes in immune functioning and metabolic processes: The greater the sleep deprivation, the greater the impact on performance. With some sleep loss, mood suffers. More negative moods and lower motivation are common, even with a small amount of sleep deprivation. With longer sleep deprivation, cognitive performance suffers. Small mistakes can be made in decisions or technical execution. 

Getting more sleep

 Paying off sleep debt is generally associated with better functioning. A well designed research study conducted at Stanford with the men’s basketball team (NCAA D1) during the competitive season shows that sleeping more was associated with better basketball performance, faster reaction time, improved mood and the athletes feeling less sleepy during the day. Sleep extension has been done with football, tennis and swimming teams at Stanford too with similar, positive results. The basketball players who agreed to sleep more each night gradually had faster sprint times and were better and more consistent shooters. A researcher asked athletes to wear a sleep band on their wrist and sleep their normal amount for three weeks. The athletes were then asked to stay in bed for ten hours every night for the next six weeks. At the baseline, the athletes slept an average of 6.7 hours, and during the extension period, they averaged 8.5 hours. While basketball players aren’t exactly similar to shooters, we can assume there are some aspects of shot preparation and execution that are shared.

Sleeping about two extra hours per night for about six weeks paid off on the court: Modified suicide sprint times were faster by 0.7 seconds - a five-percent improvement; free throw accuracy went up 9 percent and three-point accuracy went up 9.2 percent. The players didn’t practice extra during this time. Their teammates who did not participate in the study did not have similar improvements. The main explanation for the improved performance the researchers could come up with was the extra sleep. It wasn’t just basketball skills that improved: reaction times on a computerized assessment were faster. The players’ moods were better - they felt significantly more vigor and less fatigue, depression, confusion and anger. They also reported that they had faster recovery times, better lift and cardio sessions, and fewer injuries (there wasn’t objective data on this, but their statements are worthwhile).

We can assume that collegiate athletes carry a large sleep debt, and as was shown in the Stanford study, the athletes benefitted from paying off that sleep debt with extra sleep. There isn’t much data available on Olympic level athletes and how much sleep debt they have. It is safe to say that unless they are sleeping a solid eight to 10 hours per night/plus naps (or more depending on how heavy their training loads are), and consistently making up lost sleep/paying off sleep debts from travel, etc., Olympic level athletes could benefit from sleep extension too. At the end of the Stanford study, the basketball players stated they had previously underestimated the amount of sleep they needed for peak physical and mental performance, and in my experience, Olympic level athletes underestimate this too. At the Olympic Training Centers, athletes also have potentially inaccurate ideas about how much sleep they really need. I often hear “I’ve gotten 7 hours or less since high school, so that must be how much sleep I really need.” What the athlete doesn’t recognize is that he is likely chronically under-rested and no longer notices it. With more clear messages from coaches, teammates and support systems, athletes can make consistent, adequate sleep a priority. Over the course of a competitive season athletes often get run down- physically, mentally and emotionally. Getting sufficient sleep and at points extra sleep can be used to combat the end of season slump.

Getting Good Sleep: Two Quick Tips

Don’t wait too late to go to bed: Growth hormone releasing hormone (the hormone that signals the release of growth hormone during sleep) facilitates the onset of sleep. When rats are injected with this hormone in lab studies they begin to feel sleepy. This hormone paves the way for the release of growth hormone by making it easier to get to sleep.  Athletes should know that when they begin to feel tired, this is in part a sign that their body is ready to get going on repair. Don’t busy yourself before bed with your to do list, as delaying sleep does not help the recovery process.

Create the right environment: The room should be dark, quiet and the ‘right’ temperature (not too cold, and not too hot, this varies slightly according to individual preferences). Use an eye mask to block out sunlight, at night in preparation for early morning light, during daytime naps, on the airplane, in hotel rooms, anywhere. Be aware of artificial light tricking your brain into thinking it is daytime and making you feel less tired.  Use ear plugs, use a white noise machine or play calming music on your iPod to keep background noise from waking you up. Just as managing your external environment can help improve sleep, managing your internal state can help too, for example, lowering your arousal before bed by doing some breathing, stretching or relaxation exercises might help if your mind becomes busy at night. Making sleep a priority and committing one’s self to a full night’s sleep can also set the stage for better sleep.

Athletes should have realistic expectations about what sleep can do for performance. On the recovery/regeneration side, it moves you towards repair from wear and tear and towards memory consolidation from what was learned in the day’s training session. On the performance enhancement side, removing sleep debt as a barrier to performance may in fact improve performance. Good sleep can prevent an athlete from performing at a slightly sub optimal level, and it might speed recovery. It will generally improve mood and levels of alertness, both of which affect motivation. Paying off sleep debt might not translate to a 9% improvement in accuracy as it did with basketball, but shooters win by small margins, so even a small change can make a big difference.



National Shooting Sports Foundation