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Sleep and Recovery for Athletes

Why am I so run down?

You religiously exercise five days a week, and can often squeeze in six, when the stars align.

Your nutrition is on point, you’ve got meal planning down to a science.

You track your daily water intake down to the last drop.

You take a required rest day or active recovery day to prevent overuse injuries and overtraining.

So, what gives?

You are doing everything right, but you are tired all the time.

You took a rest day so why do you feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends?

As we monitor every aspect of health and fitness to ensure we achieve our goals, there is one box, that not only doesn’t get checked, but most of us, don’t even recognize the significance of it.

And I’m guilty of it too.

Let’s start here. What time do you go to bed each night? Not, go to bed and scroll through your newsfeed for 40 minutes, or lay in bed while checking emails or reading your Kindle. What time do you actually close your eyes with the intent of drifting off?

I was “going to bed” around 10:00 pm each night, but for some reason, I felt the need to Facebook scroll, or search for houses on Zillow in potential locations we could live in the future (#milspouse), if that got boring, I could find some other mindless task on my phone to occupy myself with. I wasn’t actually closing my eyes until 11:00 pm.

Does any of this sound familiar? Pick your poison, you might not be staying up for social media or house hunting, but I’m sure you have a “go-to” activity to occupy your dedicated sleep time.

Quality sleep and getting enough of it, is just as important as fitness and nutrition.  

Sleep Basics

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH), “sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance.  Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.”

I’m sure as a Personal Trainer, you’ve gotten this question from time to time. It’s one we roll our eyes at and grit our teeth, annoyed so many people think it’s a choice.

“What’s more important, fitness or nutrition for losing weight?”

Facepalm…I know, it drives me crazy too and it seems to last the test of time. Trying to keep a straight face and calm voice, you explain the importance of both.

Guess what? We need to start reprogramming how we think and add sleep to that equation. What does it take to achieve our goals?

Fitness, Nutrition, and Rest.

There are four stages of sleep. I’m sure you’ve heard of REM sleep. The goal is to get to Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which occurs in Stage 4, but it’s important to note, non-REM sleep is important as well.

Sleep Stages

On a typical night, a person goes through four to six sleep cycles.

Stage 1: Non-REM, Wakefulness to sleep. Think of it as a “dozing off” stage. Several minutes of light sleep. You typically spend 1-5 minutes in Stage 1.

Stage 2: Non-REM, A period of light sleep before entering into a deeper sleep. According to NIH, you spend most of your time here. You spend typically 10-60 minutes in Stage 2. Typically, during your first sleep cycle, it is closer to 10-25 minutes.

Stage 3: Non-REM, A period of deep sleep. You will get into this stage during the first half of the night. Your heart rate and breathing are at the slowest levels during the cycle. Your muscles relax, your muscles blood supply increases, hormones are released, and tissue grows and is also repaired. You spend typically 20-40 minutes in Stage 3, this is typical throughout every sleep cycle.

Stage 4: REM sleep occurs around 90 minutes after falling asleep. Your breathing and heart rate pick up again and most of your dreams will occur here. This stage is essential for the restoration of neural function. You spend typically 10-60 minutes in Stage 4.

Both Stage 3 and Stage 4 are where the magic happens. But you have to get there first. If sleep is disrupted before deep and REM sleep occurs, the entire process starts over again.

So, your child starts crying, your dog rolls over, your spouse gets out of bed, and anything that wakes you up will start the process over again. And remember, it takes 90 minutes after falling asleep to get to REM.

Why are you so run down?

How much time are you spending in Stage 3 and Stage 4 of your sleep cycle? Is your body getting the necessary repair and growth it needs for you to feel refreshed?

How much sleep are you really getting? Start with the time you shut your eyes until the alarm goes off. Are you going to sleep too late? And what about sleep quality? How many times do you wake up at night?

How much quality sleep do you really need?

According to the NIH, most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night.

Let’s be honest, that’s an “average” and IFPA Trainers are anything but average. You have long days, and you train hard to maintain your own fitness level.

The Numbers

According to the Sleep Foundation, there have been multiple studies that have shown “a lack of sleep is detrimental to performance.”

  • In a study conducted on Sprint Athletes, sleep-deprived athletes averaged, and total times decreased. Checkout the full study here:
  • In a study conducted on Tennis Players, sleep-deprived athletes had a decrease in serve accuracy of up to 53%. Checkout the full study here:
  • In a study conducted on Runners and Volleyball Players, sleep-deprived athletes experienced quicker exhaustion. Checkout the full study here:
  • In a study conducted on Middle/High School Athletes, sleep-deprived athletes experienced an increased risk of injury. Checkout the full study here:

These and other numerous studies all project the same outcome, lack of sleep negatively impacts performance in both females and males, in a variety of sports and ages.

There are also numerous studies that show that increased quality and quantity of sleep positively impact performance.

  • Basketball players that extended their sleep to 10 hours saw at least a 9% increase in free throws and three-point shots and had faster run times in both half-court and full-court sprints. Checkout the full study here:
  • Swim Athletes that extended their sleep to 10 hours saw faster reaction times off the diving blocks, turn times improved, kick strokes increased, and the 15-meter sprint times also improved. Checkout the full study here:
  • Tennis players who increased their sleep to 9 hours, went from about 36% to 42% serve accuracy. Checkout the full study here:

Also, in every single one of these studies, the athletes reported improved physical and mental well-being.

Bottomline, more sleep equals better performance both physically and mentally.

Now, it’s time to be realistic. These are high-level athletes. I’m sure most are unmarried without children. Spouses, children, and full-time jobs can make getting ten hours of sleep every night a little unrealistic.

HOWEVER! Do the math…Be honest with yourself. Where are you at? I was realistically at seven. I was going to bed after 11:00 pm and getting up at 6:00 am. That’s on the low end of what is recommended for the average person (but remember we aren’t average).

The Tips

The bigger problem for me was my quality of sleep. I would wake up several times a night, tossing and turning. I just couldn’t stay asleep for more than a few hours.

Dad, (aka Dr. Bell) wrote an article not too long ago called “Stress and Sleepless Nights – 22 Tips When You’re Too Stressed To Rest”.

If you are getting to bed at a good time, but your quality of sleep is what’s making you exhausted throughout the day, check out those 22 tips and see if they make a difference.

The list begins with some broad tips that will be “no-brainers” for IFPA Trainers, eat healthy, exercise, and avoid caffeine late in the day, but as the list continues on, the tips get more specific.

Magic Milk

One of the tips is something I swear by. Give this a shot before going to bed tonight. It was life-changing for me:

  • 1 cup of Warm Milk,
  • ½ teaspoon of Turmeric,
  • ¼ teaspoons of Ashwagandha,
  • ½ teaspoon of Cinnamon,
  • 1 pinch of Ginger

Sleep Checks for Clients

Add Sleep Time and Sleep Quality Check-ins with your clients’ during every Client Consultation/Weigh-In Session, to make sure they are getting enough quality rest.

Wishing you all the best in your recovery,


The IFPA Team