The Influence Of Sleep On Performance

Contributors: Jason Tremblay 

Peak athletic performance requires elements of speed, endurance, pain tolerance, learning, attentiveness, well-being, and the ability to stay “in the game” by avoiding illness and injury. A 2016 research review by Simpson et al. links sleep loss with impaired function in all of the aforementioned categories. 

In fact, Williamson & Feyer (2000) found that 17-19 hours of wakefulness lead to performance impairment equivalent to those of 0.05% blood alcohol content. 28 hours of wakefulness lead to performance impairment on par to those of 0.10% blood alcohol content. A value which is .02% higher than the legal limit of 0.08%.

Furthermore, Van Dongen et al., (2003) showed just how poor our ability to self-assess our own level of sleep impairment is. Test subjects were relatively unaware of the cognitive deficits caused by restriction to 4 or 6 hours of sleep per night over a 14-day period. This data supports the notion that it is difficult to gauge the potential impact of insufficient sleep on our own performance levels.

Simpson et al., (2016) provide the following recommendations to help athletes improve in this crucial area of preparation & recovery.

Tip 1. Obtain Adequate Total Sleep Duration 

Track sleep for 2 weeks using a self-report sleep diary. Gradually increase sleep duration by 15 min every few nights, until athlete feels well rested and alert during the day. Consider increasing nighttime sleep by 30–60 min/night; this is particularly important if average sleep duration is <7 h/night.

Tip 2. Maintain Healthy Sleep Habits 

Develop a good sleep environment: the ideal room is cool, dark, and comfortable. Avoid having/using electronics or personal devices in bedroom. Allow for a 30-60 min relaxing wind-down period before bed. Ideally, consume no caffeine after lunch, and limit late evening alcohol use.

Tip 3. Minimizing the Impact of Travel 

Factor-in the time needed to adjust to a new time zone; as a rule of thumb, the body can adjust to 1 h of time zone difference each day. Consider starting to shift body clock prior to departure or during flight. Reduce the impact of non-jet lag travel effects such as: dehydration, acoustic stress, low physical activity, and changes in food/drinking patterns.


1. Simpson, N. S., Gibbs, E. L., & Matheson, G. O. (2016). Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: implications and recommendations for elite athletes. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports.

2. Van Dongen, H. P., Maislin, G., Mullington, J. M., & Dinges, D. F. (2003). The cumulative cost of additional wakefulness: dose-response effects on neurobehavioral functions and sleep physiology from chronic sleep restriction and total sleep deprivation. SLEEP-NEW YORK THEN WESTCHESTER-, 26(2), 117-129.

3. Williamson, A. M., & Feyer, A. M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and environmental medicine, 57(10), 649-655.