Background: Information on sleep quality and insomnia symptomatology among elite athletes remains poorly systematised in the sports science and medicine literature. The extent to which performance in elite sport represents a risk for chronic insomnia is unknown.
Objectives: The purpose of this systematic review was to profile the objective and experienced characteristics of sleep among elite athletes, and to consider relationships between elite sport and insomnia symptomatology.
Methods: Studies relating to sleep involving participants described on a pre-defined continuum of 'eliteness' were located through a systematic search of four research databases: SPORTDiscus, PubMed, Science Direct and Google Scholar, up to April 2016. Once extracted, studies were categorised as (1) those mainly describing sleep structure/patterns, (2) those mainly describing sleep quality and insomnia symptomatology and (3) those exploring associations between aspects of elite sport and sleep outcomes.
Results: The search returned 1676 records. Following screening against set criteria, a total of 37 studies were identified. The quality of evidence reviewed was generally low. Pooled sleep quality data revealed high levels of sleep complaints in elite athletes. Three risk factors for sleep disturbance were broadly identified: (1) training, (2) travel and (3) competition.
Conclusion: While acknowledging the limited number of high-quality evidence reviewed, athletes show a high overall prevalence of insomnia symptoms characterised by longer sleep latencies, greater sleep fragmentation, non-restorative sleep, and excessive daytime fatigue. These symptoms show marked inter-sport differences. Two underlying mechanisms are implicated in the mediation of sport-related insomnia symptoms: pre-sleep cognitive arousal and sleep restriction.