Sleep cycles for athletic performance

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I’m a big advocate of the importance of rest and recovery alongside training. One of…

Sleep cycles for athletic performance

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I’m a big advocate of the importance of rest and recovery alongside training. One of the best ways to recover from training is, of course, sleep. But how exactly does sleep help us recover and perform better? What goes on in our bodies while we are asleep?

To answer this, it’s helpful to know the different sleep stages…

What are sleep cycles?

There are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep (which has three different stages). During a typical night, you cycle through all stages of REM and non-REM sleep several times.

Stage 1
This is a short period of light non-REM sleep as you are dozing-off, it typically lasts one to five minutes. Your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax with occasional twitches. 

Stage 2
The body enters a more subdued state with a drop in temperature, slowed heart rate, breathing and relaxed muscles. Brain wave activity slows but there are brief bursts of electrical activity.  This period of non-REM sleep can last for 10-25 minutes during the first sleep cycle but can become longer during the night.

Stage 3
Also known as deep sleep, your heart rate, brain waves breathing slow to their lowest levels. Muscles relax even further and it is harder to wake someone up if they are in stage 3 sleep. This stage is important for restorative sleep, allowing for bodily recovery and growth.

When your body enters its deep sleep stage. the pituitary gland releases significant amounts of the growth hormone (HGH) which plays an important role in muscle growth, cell repair, bone building and fat burning. HGH is released in pulses with the largest pulses occurring before midnight, with some smaller pulses in the early morning. When the body doesn’t get enough sleep, the secretion of HGH declines, and it can become harder for your body to recover from exercise.

REM Sleep
REM sleep occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, with the first period typically lasting 10 minutes. Each REM stage gets longer with the final one lasting up to an hour. REM stages make up around 25% of sleep in adults.

During REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Breathing, blood pressure and heart rate become faster, but your muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Most dreaming occurs during the REM sleep stage. Your muscles receive an increase in blood flow, which brings oxygen and nutrients which help repair muscles and regenerate cells.

Sleep Cycles

Sleep cycles for improved reaction times

As well as promoting muscle repair and recovery, sleep also helps consolidate memory which is essential for faster reaction times and improved accuracy. For sports that require sustained attention and quick reflexes, sleep is crucial.

In one study, Swimmers who extended their sleep to 10 hours saw many performance improvements- reaction times off diving blocks were faster, turn times were improved, and kick strokes increased.

How much sleep do athletes need?

Most people need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but athletes should aim for about an hour extra to allow time to recover. Elite athletes are known to sleep 10-12 hours a night while training and nap throughout the day to maintain their endurance.

Women’s road cycling team Drops Le Col know the importance of sleep cycles for performance development, strength, endurance and cognitive function. As part of their recent partnership with premium mattress brand TEMPUR®, the riders have been provided with mattresses and pillows to boost rest and recovery.

“Sleep is a fundamental tool to support our riders in improving their performance and we’re encouraging riders to invest in sleep and recovery as much as they do in training. With TEMPUR® ’s world-class products and its brand expertise, we couldn’t be better equipped.”

Tobin James, Vice President TEMPUR Northern Europe
Tempur Drops Le Col

How to improve the quality of your sleep

  • Stick to a consistent schedule- aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and large meals before bed.
  • Optimise your bedroom environment by minimising external light and noise. Keep the room at a cool temperature (20 °C is optimal) and invest in comfortable bedding, mattress and pillows. TEMPUR®’s mattress material is designed to help you sleep better, longer and deeper.
  • Relax before bed with a warm bath, reading or meditation.
  • Stop watching TV and looking at devices like smartphones and computers 2 hours before going to bed.
  • Exercise does help improve sleep, but try to finish your workout 90 minutes before bed to give your body time to wind down.
Sleep cycles- tempur pillow

Looking for more posts on rest and recovery? You might like…
Are massage guns worth the money?
Tips for sore muscles
4 ways to recharge your energy this winter

This post is a paid partnership with TEMPUR® but all opinions are my own.


  1. Sleep is important for everyone, but I can see how vital it would be for peak performance for athletes. You’ve covered the cycles really clearly and given great tips for getting some better zzzs. I use a Tempur pillow, and a mini one for my back, love them. I bet a mattress would be pretty heavenly too. x

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.