Do athletes oversleep?

What happens to your body when you get more than the recommended amount of shut-eye

Whenever you push harder in your workouts you may notice that you crave a bit more sleep than usual. After all, “sleep is the time during which nearly all of our physical recovery occurs,” says Jennifer Martin, Ph.D., clinical sleep psychologist in Los Angeles and a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. For athletes in training, sleep becomes an essential ingredient to their success on the field, court, track, or road. Those hours in bed are nearly as important as those spent practicing. But it's only natural to wonder if it’s possible to get too much of such a good thing.

The myth of oversleeping

There’s no such thing as too much sleep, Martin says, citing research that suggests that up to 10 hours of sleep may benefit college-aged athletes, with improvements in reaction time, accuracy, and overall speed. Marathoner Ryan Hall swears by those extra hours in bed, saying he clocks nine hours at night plus an hour and a half nap during training. Lebron James is also well known for his downtime, routinely sleeping 12 hours a night. It makes sense since extra sleep is particularly important during intense training: the Life of an Athlete Human Performance Project recommends about an hour more—from 8 to 9.25 hours—for elite athletes.

The reason for sleep-induced fog

Though some may report grogginess after more-than-usual amounts of sleep, there’s a reason for that: “Most people feel unwell when they sleep ‘too much’ because they were sleep-deprived to begin with, and either were not able to pay back their sleep debt in one day, or because they wake up at an atypical time after sleeping in,” explains Martin. When you have inconsistent wake times, it’s akin to having jet lag, which of course will wreak havoc on your alertness and energy levels.

The best way to get more sleep

Aim for seven hours, at the absolute minimum, every night. “There are a few people whose biological sleep need is below seven hours, but many more people who need more than seven hours for optimal performance,” Martin says. Even if you think you’re in the former camp, if you consistently get five hours or less, the research says your performance will suffer.

During an intense training cycle, it can pay to get 30 minutes to one hour extra sleep (so eight or nine hours). Just make sure you’re getting that number nightly and not trying to cram it in on the weekends which can have negative effects. Your best bet is to go to bed a little earlier each night to adjust your total duration of sleep gradually. Another strategy: adding a short afternoon power nap up to a half hour during training has serious benefits.