The Variability of Sleep Among Elite Athletes

Sports Med Open. 2018 Jul 27;4(1):34. doi: 10.1186/s40798-018-0151-2.


Practicing sport at the highest level is typically accompanied by several stressors and restrictions on personal life. Elite athletes' lifestyle delivers a significant challenge to sleep, due to both the physiological and psychological demands, and the training and competition schedules. Inter-individual variability of sleep patterns (e.g., sleep requirements, chronotype) may have important implications not only for recovery and training schedules but also for the choice of measures to possibly improve sleep. This article provides a review of the current available literature regarding the variability of sleep among elite athletes and factors possibly responsible for this phenomenon. We also provide methodological approaches to better address the inter-individual variability of sleep in future studies with elite athletes. There is currently little scientific evidence supporting a specific influence of one particular type of sport on sleep; sleep disorders may be, however, more common in strength/power and contact sports. Sleep behavior may notably vary depending on the athlete's typical daily schedule. The specificity of training and competition schedules possibly accounts for the single most influential factor leading to inconsistency in sleep among elite athletes (e.g., "social jet lag"). Additionally, athletes are affected by extensive exposure to electric light and evening use of electronic media devices. Therefore, the influence of ordinary sleep, poor sleep, and extended sleep as important additional contributors to training load should be studied. Future experimental studies on sleep and elite sport performance should systematically report the seasonal phase. Boarding conditions may provide a good option to standardize as many variables as possible without the inconvenience of laboratory. The use of interdisciplinary mixed-method approaches should be encouraged in future studies on sleep and elite sport. Finally, high inter- and intra-individual variability in the athletes' sleep characteristics suggests a need for providing individual responses in addition to group means.

Keywords: Competition; Performance; Recovery; Sport; Stress; Training.

Publication types

  • Review