Sleep. It’s something we all know we need, but don’t necessarily get. We know sleep is good for us but we’re all guilty of not making it a priority in our lives. In this article, we’re going to discuss the importance of sleep and how it can complement the exercise we do.

Stages of Sleep

Sleep is a dynamic process occurring in cycles. Most adults will experience 4-5 sleep cycles per night. Within each sleep cycle there are different stages whereby our bodies perform differently:

  • Light sleep: Light sleep is where our bodies are setting us up for slow-wave sleep, but are in a more responsive state. This is believed to occur through evolution where our ancestors would have to say alert to dangers. Restoration does occur in this stage but it is not particularly frequent.
  • Slow Wave Sleep (SWS): Also known as deep sleep, SWS is where our bodies are most restorative. During SWS our skeletal muscles can be repaired and grown. It’s during this stage that 95% of our growth hormones are released.
  • REM Sleep: Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage where the brain gets most of its restoration. It’s during this time you’ll have the majority of your dreams. It’s also the time when your thoughts and ideas throughout the day are stored as memories.
  • Wake: Wake? A stage of sleep? Believe it or not, the average adult wakes up between 10 and 20 times per night. Sometimes it’s conscious awakening, other times not. It’s important to include this as a stage of sleep because it can deduct from the time in which we actually sleep. We might be in bed for 8 hours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve had 8 hours of sleep.

Importance of Sleep

Sleep helps restore the mind and body to a state of equilibrium. Our thoughts and ideas are converted to memories and our muscles grow back bigger and stronger. Quality sleep allows us to perform better than the previous day.

But, what are the consequences of poor quality sleep? According to Leproult and Van Cauter (2010), sleep restriction leads to metabolic and endocrine alterations, which include, but are not limited to, reduced glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, increase evening cortisol concentration, increased ghrelin, decreased levels of leptin and increased hunger and appetite. These hormonal changes can lead to adverse health conditions and weight gain.

To summarise, quality and sufficient sleep can help us restore our bodies, recover, and benefit from daily activity. Poor quality and insufficient sleep can inhibit our ability to recover from exercise and daily life, as well as increase our risk of adverse health conditions and weight gain.

Sleep and Exercise Performance

Sleep can have many benefits for exercise performance, both physically and mentally.

In a study on basketball players by Watson (2017) it was concluded players shooting accuracy and running speed increased when they slept for 10 hours per night. Further studies have shown mental and physical benefits from athletes across a range of sports.

In contrast, a lack of sleep can lead to reduced cognitive function. This includes reduced reaction times, reduced accuracy, and slower decision-making ability. From a physical perspective, a lack of sleep can lead to quicker exhaustion and inhibited motor control ability. Finally, due to quicker exhaustion and inhibited motor control ability, our risk of injury increases.

Sleep recommendations are slightly longer for athletes. Ideally, athletes should get between 9 and 10 hours of sleep per night to help recover from the increased strain exercise elicits.

Sleep and Exercise Recovery

Sleep is essential for recovery and repair. During exercise our muscle tissue is broken down, it’s only during sleep that it repairs and grows stronger. With sufficient sleep comes sufficient recovery and thus we can continue to progress from our training, rather than letting our performance drop because we’re fatigued or under-recovered.

Sleep also helps prevent future illness. During sleep, we produce hormones called cytokines. Cytokines assist with fighting off infections. Again, allowing your immune system to be as healthy as possible allows you to get the most from your training.

Sleep Routine

Building a good sleep routine can help maximise the quality and quantity of your sleep. There are some generic sleep habits (also known as sleep hygiene) that can complement your healthy sleep routine.

  • Separating Rooms: If space allows, create an environment where your bedroom is just used for sleep and sex. If we regularly work or use social media in our bedrooms, it’s much harder to separate from our work and life stressors, thus making it harder to get, and stay, asleep.
  • Limit Alcohol and Caffeine: Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that can keep us awake and interfere with our sleep. While a drink before bed might feel like a nightcap drink before bed, it can actually interfere with the quality of our sleep and the length of time we’re asleep.
  • Limit Blue Light: Blue light emits from screens such as laptops, TVs, and phones. In line with our evolutionary circadian rhythm, when it starts to get dark our bodies begin to release hormones that help us feel tired. Blue light blocks this process due to the light. If need be, reduce your screen brightness, or eliminate devices altogether.
  • Develop a Bedtime Routine: Following on from the previous point, aim to have a wind-down routine that doesn’t involve electronic devices. Try reading, meditation, chatting with your loved ones, meditating, anything which allows you to destress from daily life and sets you up for a good night’s sleep.
  • Train Around Your Workouts: If life allows, don’t cut your sleep short to train in the mornings, and don’t train too close to bedtime – especially if it’s high intensity.

How to Improve Sleep

Given the fast-moving nature of modern life, it’s difficult to balance everyday tasks and activities with a good night’s sleep. However, we must consider the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep. Do the benefits of a good night’s sleep allow you to perform better the next day? If that’s the case, is it worth having a good night’s sleep and having a productive shorter day, or would you rather have a long day that is less productive.? If you equal it out, I’d argue a good night’s sleep is better than trying to power through a long day.


Sleep is an essential part of daily life. We can survive on limited, poor-quality sleep, but for optimal mental and physical performance, a good night’s quality sleep is vital.