The Best Sleep Products for Athletes
Exercise is a critical component of sleep—many sleep physicians say that getting exercise in the morning is the best thing you can do for your body at night. And whether your exercise of choice is a 15-minute walk, a calming yoga class or an ultra-marathon, one thing we all have in common is that our bodies rest, recover and rebuild during sleep. This reset that our bodies experience during sleep plays a huge role in our mood, energy levels, memory, cognitive thinking and overall quality of life.
If you are an athlete in any capacity, whether that be professionally, semi-professionally or for weekend competitions, your sleep needs may change, both in length and in the sleep setup you need to get your best rest.
To explore how much sleep athletes need to perform well and for tips on how to shop for sleep gear to get the best quality sleep, we checked in with some professionals. Here’s what they had to say.
Why Sleep Is Important for Athletic Recovery
Sleep neurologist Dr. Chris Winter has coached professional sports teams in the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL when it comes to all matters related to sleep. He explains that in athletic endeavors, whether it’s playing pick-up basketball after work or playing point guard in the NBA, sleep is critical for both performance and recovery.
“The modern athlete has nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and sleep,” Winter says. “These are the four pillars of health for everyone, but the modern athlete has more on the line, so they’re really trying to get the most out of their sleep.”
Winter points out that athletes have a unique window as to how sleep (or lack thereof) is playing a role in performance. Athletes often have precise measurements of performance. While we might think they crushed that 800-meter race, they know it was off by .04 seconds. That may seem trivial, but Winter points out that could be losing a race, a spot on the team or a sponsorship. If all other pillars were constant—nutrition, training and mindfulness—it’s possible sleep factored into the less-than-stellar performance.
How to Find the Right Sleep Products for Athletic Performance
The first step to improved athletic performance and recovery is understanding how important sleep is. The next step is to work on setting up your bed and sleep surroundings to help you get good sleep. To explore what this looks like for an athlete, we chatted with Carlos Ramirez, a Mattress Firm Sleep Expert® and former professional baseball player.
His first piece of advice (and second and third) is to sleep on an adjustable base. “I’ve convinced all of my friends to sleep on an adjustable base. It’s very difficult to sleep flat for a human, but elevating the head and legs is a game-changer,” he says.
Adjustable beds allow you to control the position of the head and feet of your mattress, either manually or with the press of a button on a remote control. Ramirez explains the benefit of sleeping with an elevated head and legs is significant for anyone, but especially for athletes. For starters, sleeping with an elevated head and chest allows for better airflow, opening them in a way that can often stop snoring issues. The position takes pressure off the lungs and better positions your head to help with airflow and easier breathing.
Elevating the feet and legs, Ramirez explains, helps with blood circulation in the lower half of the body. Blood flow is a crucial part of muscle recovery, and long-distance runners will find sleeping with elevated legs to be especially beneficial. Raising the lower body also allows for better blood flow to the heart, which puts less stress on it. Additionally, Ramirez says sleeping on an adjustable base can help relax the hips, relieving pressure on an often-stressed area for athletes.
When it comes to the mattress itself, Ramirez recommends first that a mattress be compatible with an adjustable bed. He also advises pressure-relieving foam and cooling layers to help with recovery. “As athletes, we just run hot. We’re constantly recovering and repairing, and your body uses a lot of energy for that,” he says.
For those factors, Ramirez has two favorites: the Tempur-Pedic ProAdapt Hybrid and the Tempur-Pedic LUXEbreeze, both of which are adjustable-base-friendly and address overheating at night. Both beds have Tempur-Pedic’s cool-to-the-touch cover and a pressure-relieving layer that’s designed to pull unwanted heat away from the body, but it’s worth lying on mattresses of other brands and styles to feel the pressure-relieving and cooling layers of comparable mattresses to see what feels best to your body.
Ramirez also says your sheets can be the cause of overheating at night. For a non-athlete, waking up sweaty is an uncomfortable inconvenience. For an athlete, this could spell a poor performance in the morning on account of dehydration that happened while sweating through the night. Ramirez recommends Tencel sheets, but he also loves 100% cotton bedding. Both are known for their breathability, especially Tencel’s ability to wick away moisture.
If your current mattress has you waking up overheated but you’re not ready for a new bed, a topper could be the solution. Mattress toppers add a few inches of pressure relief to your current bed setup, and many are made with cooling elements like gel-infused memory foam and cooling cover materials.
How to Sleep Better With an Injury or Sore Muscles
Training hard or playing hard can be hard on the body, and some might find themselves sitting out races, games or even a full season because of an injury. Sleeping while in pain can be challenging, and Ramirez says this is another instance where the adjustable base shines. “If an athlete gets injured and the doctors recommend rest, the adjustable base can make that so much more comfortable,” he says. “Sitting up with your legs elevated while you watch TV is big when it comes to recovery.”
If you’re experiencing sore muscles from an intense workout, the same rings true. Another way to soothe sore muscles is with a massage gun, like the lineup of Theraguns. These handheld massage devices can target deep muscle pain to help with blood flow and recovery.
How Much Sleep Do Athletes Really Need?
There’s no standard recipe when it comes to how many hours of sleep an athlete needs to get each night—athletes’ sleep needs vary the same way tastes for pizza toppings do, but the more sleep, the better for recovery and performance. “I think it's fair to say it would be difficult to perform your best as an elite athlete if you're averaging significantly less than seven or eight hours of sleep per night,” Winter says.
That number, however, isn’t a hard or fast rule. An athlete’s sleep needs change based on the training cycle. If an ultra-runner is clocking hundreds of miles each week, they’ll need more sleep to recover as opposed to a month where they’re only doing maintenance training to run in the local 5K.
Winter also points out that when it comes to sleep, a holistic view is more important than looking at how many hours you got last night. It’s normal and expected that some nights won’t include much restorative sleep. But Winter says it’s important to not get too upset about a few nights that don’t add up to the right number of hours. “You’re not screwed just because you didn’t sleep well on Tuesday night,” Winter reassures. “Your body is better than that.”
If you think you might be experiencing some sleep-deprivation impacts on physical performance, he recommends trying for 15 more minutes of sleep per night. If that feels like an improvement, consider going for an additional 15 minutes. “Fifteen minutes, compounded over a year, is a lot,” Winter says. In fact, it’s an additional 91 hours and 15 minutes!
As one of the main pillars of health for every human, athlete or not, sleep is an essential part of our well-being. All the more reason to cozy up in a comfortable bed for a great night’s rest.