Ever have trouble falling asleep on time after a hard workout? That lack of sleep – even for a single night – could slow your recovery from athletic training, a new study reports (1).

For sports and exercise, sleep is recognized as critical for an athlete’s well-being and performance. Much of sleep’s value lies in its role in boosting recovery from both training and competition, making it an important factor in determining performance.

A single workout affects the muscular, cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, metabolic, and immune systems, depending on the intensity of the exercise (2). Sleep recovers and repairs these systems, providing an opportunity for the body to adapt.

Reducing sleep has been shown to decrease glucose tolerance, increase stress hormones like cortisol, and disrupt the normal pattern of growth hormone at night (3). Reduced sleep may also interfere with muscle recovery due to increased protein breakdown, creating a poor environment for muscle repair (4). Sleep deprivation can also disrupt the normal functioning of the immune system and reduces mood and motivation, which are important factors in exercise and competition (5, 6).

In the latest study, South African researchers report that cyclists who are deprived of a single night’s sleep saw a reduction in their peak power output, reported higher levels of sleepiness, and had less motivation to train (1).

The University of Cape Town researchers also studied cyclists and their sleep by comparing cyclists’ recovery from a single workout of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) after which they were given either a normal night of sleep or half their usual time in bed (1). In a randomized cross-over fashion, 16 trained male cyclists completed a HIIT-styled exercise session and completed both sleeping conditions separated by a two-week “washout” period. The next day, the researchers conducted various tests to assess motivation to train, muscle soreness, resting heart rate, metabolism, and immunity. The researchers also tested peak power as a measure of exercise efficiency.

The data suggest that a single night of sleep deprivation was enough to compromise recovery from a HIIT session, while a night of normal sleep facilitated full recovery. The extent to which relative peak power was decreased was 5 percent. Each percentage point can be meaningful for elite athletes looking to shave off time for competition (7).

Staying up late and practicing poor sleep habits can essentially negate much of the training adaptions athletes seek. For athletes looking to perform at their best, research suggests that getting seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep is a must.


  1. Rae DE, Chin T, Dikgomo K, Hill L, McKune AJ, Kohn TA & Roden LC. One night of partial sleep deprivation impairs recovery from a single exercise training session. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Feb 28.
  2. Heinonen I, Kalliokoski KK, Hannukainen JC, Duncker DJ, Nuutila P & Knuuti J. Organ-specific physiological responses to acute physical exercise and long-term training in humans. Physiology. 2014 Nov; 29(6):421-36.
  3. Akerstedt T & Nilsson PM. Sleep as restitution: an introduction. J Intern Med. 2003 Jul; 254(1):6-12.
  4. Dattilo M, Antunes HK, Medeiros A, Mônico Neto M, Souza HS, Tufik S & de Mello MT. Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Med Hypotheses. 2011 Aug; 77(2):220-2.
  5. Faraut B, Boudjeltia KZ, Vanhamme L & Kerkhofs M. Immune, inflammatory and cardiovascular consequences of sleep restriction and recovery. Sleep Med Rev. 2012 Apr; 16(2):137-49.
  6. Scott JP, McNaughton LR & Polman RC. Effects of sleep deprivation and exercise on cognitive, motor performance and mood. Physiol Behav. 2006 Feb 28; 87(2):396-408.
  7. Currell K & Jeukendrup AE. Validity, reliability and sensitivity of measures of sporting performance. Sports Med. 2008; 38(4):297-316.

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