How Elite Athletes Use Sleep to Perform at Their Best

Want to know the secret on how to train like an endurance athlete? Start sleeping better.

Asian woman runs and jumping on mountain ridge at sunset.
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When we talk about athletic achievement, we often focus on the grittier aspects: the grueling hours put in, the physical and mental strength, and the total perseverance it takes, day in and day out, to stay on top. But a big part of an athlete’s ability to remain competitive is how they deal with sleep — and the most successful athletes know how to use it to their advantage.

Sleep is essential for anyone’s mental and physical health, but it’s even more imperative for elite athletes working to improve strength, speed, and stamina. “Sleep is one of those world-class basics, and if you can master it, you’re going to be so much further ahead,” says Molly Hurford, a former Ironman triathlete and cyclist who’s now found her stride as an ultrarunner. This past February, Hurford crushed the Outlaw 100 trail-running race in Oklahoma, setting a course record on her first 100-miler, finishing in under 24 hours at 23:53:42 and beating the next-fastest competitor by nearly four hours (three hours and 56 minutes).

Leading up to the race, “I really prioritized smart training and a lot of sleep, so that way I hit the race in the best possible physical condition I could be in,” she says. “I was very well rested and very much ready for the actual event.”

Olympic rower Kendall Chase also knows a thing or two about optimizing sleep for performance. Chase competed for Team USA in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games (which took place in the summer of 2021 due to COVID-19) in the women’s four event. “Everyone has their own unique way of going about their sleeping habits,” says Chase of her rowing team, “and all of us were very particular about our sleep.”

After an accomplished decade-long rowing career, Chase has hung up the oars (for now) and turned her focus to cycling, mainly criteriums, or “crits,” which are intense lapped races on closed-circuit city streets with a lot of high-speed turns — kind of like the Formula 1 of cycling.

How much do endurance athletes train?

“Both rowing and cycling are endurance sports, and the training is pretty similar,” says Chase. “It’s volume-based. We’re trying to get in as much volume as we can to build that fitness foundation. As we get closer to, say, the Olympics, the volume decreases, and the intensity increases.” Leading up to Tokyo, Chase had two to three training sessions a day for six days, and then an active recovery day “to keep things loose.” You can’t keep up that schedule without a healthy dose of sleep.

“I actually train at a fairly low volume for ultrarunning,” says Hurford, who runs between 60 and 75 miles a week, with Mondays off, bolstered with daily yoga, walking, and other cross-training activities. “Sleep makes a huge, huge difference,” she says, and if it’s off for more than a couple of days, it shows. Hurford monitors her heart rate variability (HRV) every morning. “I can really see the difference if I’ve had disturbed sleep — it’s a very clear metric.”

What’s going on while athletes sleep?

“For endurance athletes, sleep becomes extremely important because their success is contingent upon not only how fast they run the race or row the race, or cycle the race, but how well they can recover before the next training session or the next race,” says neurologist and sleep specialist Dr. Chris Winter, who works with professional sports organizations and athletes to help them maximize the benefits of good sleep.

More sleep equals more tissue repair, more muscle building, more cognitive restoration — more of everything good, basically. This regenerative ability is chalked up to what Winter calls “the chemical fountain of youth.”

“When we sleep, we tend to create a hormone in our brain called growth hormone, which is this chemical that when you’re little makes you grow,” says Winter. “Even when we stop growing, that growth hormone is integral to strengthening our muscles and our bones, making them strong and impermeable to getting injured or broken. It strengthens our immune system. It makes our protein synthesis better so we get bigger muscles, perform faster, and have a brighter outlook on things.”

Without good sleep, both in quality and quantity, a person’s growth hormone production will decrease, “which over an athlete’s lifetime is everything, in terms of their performance and ability to stay in that sport forever.”

How much sleep do endurance athletes need?

For athletes in peak training, there’s a lot of rebuilding to do post-workout. While the average person will find seven to eight hours of sleep a night adequate, “for that rower or marathon runner, it could be nine to 10 hours, easily.” A couple of extra hours at night or a nap during the day might be the difference that leads to a podium finish.

It’s not just that athletes know they need to sleep to restore, they are also physiologically pushed to sleep more. “For some of these high-endurance athletes, their bodies are looking for more sleep. When we exercise, we tend to create more chemicals that are sleep-promoting, including a chemical called adenosine,” says Winter. “Adenosine creates a drive to sleep. This whole chemical cascade is set up so individuals can sleep more to recover more.” It’s probably why we tend to sleep more when we’re sick, he explains, because the body recognizes that it’s got a lot of immune system work to do, and we need sleep to facilitate that.

“I am very princess-y about getting enough sleep,” says Hurford, who gets between eight and nine hours every night. “I can tolerate a couple of nights under that, but not for very long.” Her sleep setup is dialed in to make the space cool, dark, and quiet so she’s asleep by 10 p.m. In the morning, she wakes up naturally between 6 and 6:30, having ditched a blaring alarm clock some time ago.

Because Hurford and her husband, her cycling coach, travel a lot for athletics, they’ve outfitted a van with an equally perfect sleep setup. “It’s way better than going from hotel to hotel or Airbnb,” she says. “I’ve just recreated our sleep environment in this van, so wherever we go now, we have the bed ready to go, and there’s no trying to adjust.”

On the rowing team, Chase was “in bed around 8, and asleep by 9:30 or 10,” then up again around 5 a.m. to head to practice. “I would never try to go to bed earlier if I knew I had an earlier wakeup because I know I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep.” To compensate, Chase makes up for any lost hours during the day by topping off her sleep during the day.

How to supplement sleep with a scheduled nap

Chase earned a reputation as “the queen of naps” on her rowing team. “I napped the most out of anyone else. It’s what my body got used to,” Chase says. “The days I wouldn’t nap, I would feel more tired.”

When you’ve already rowed 20 miles before most people have eaten breakfast, “you just want to go back to bed,” she says. “If you can have an hour or an hour-and-a-half window where you can get a little bit of extra sleep, you try to get it — even if just for my mental well-being.”

According to Winter, building naps into the plan can absolutely be beneficial, as long as they aren’t impacting the nightly routine. “Napping is for people who have slept during their sleep period, but feel like they need a little bit more. [Naps] should always be working to supplement an individual versus this thing that’s creating the problem,” he explains. “A designated nap time between training sessions for one hour — that’s when napping works its best, when [it’s] on a schedule.”

How athletes can add in extra recovery time

Whether a person naps or not, finding a few moments of relaxation to restore the brain and body goes a long way, explains Winter. “You’re losing a lot less than what one would think that you’re losing,” he says. “What I love about resting is that if you start looking at the research — and I share this with athletes all the time — the individuals who rested did just as well on the physical or cognitive tests as the people who slept, if you rested properly.”

When Winter is working with professional athletes, one of his universal pieces of advice is, “You have to find 15 minutes every day to rest. Go to a peaceful place. If you fall asleep, awesome; if you don’t, no problem.”

This is the approach Hurford uses. “I’m not a napper necessarily,” she says, “But I try to do a 20-minute meditation in the afternoon after lunch — 50% of the time it culminates in me falling asleep during it, but I figure if I fall asleep, it usually means that I needed the extra few minutes.”

How to sleep more like an endurance athlete

We figured out how to go from zero to 60 a long time ago, explains Winter. “It’s the 60 to zero that we’re struggling with right now — but people are really paying attention to sleep because it’s everything in terms of [recovery].”

If the goal is to emulate how these elite athletes train, then you might be wise to stop clocking in more hours at the gym and start getting better sleep and incorporating some rest into your day. When it comes to performance, to gain more, we need to slow down.