By Sarah Tone, Communications Coordinator

When you think of recovery for athletes, what images pop into your mind?

For many, they think of athletes soaking in an ice bath or hot tub, getting a massage or stretching, or using fancy gadgets like Normatec Compression sleeves, massage guns, foam rollers or even other compression garments. These things can all aid in recovery from training in some way, shape or form. However, I would classify these things as the small pebbles in your recovery bucket, meaning they can certainly help but they should not be the main focus of your recovery system.

Do you really want to know the keys to elite recovery from competition and training?

They are very simple – sleep like a baby, eat like an adult, and train like an athlete and breathe like a yoga master.  Obviously, there is a little more to it than this but in a nutshell, that is it.

To expand on this, we will go through a 4-part series on recovery. We like to look at recovery as a pyramid. The foundation of that pyramid is sleep, which is what we will focus on in part 1. Building on sleep, the next level of the pyramid is nutrition and hydration. Above that, we have training. and finally, different modalities to help optimize recovery.

As you can see, the bottom part of the pyramid is the widest and most stable part and therefore, the biggest rock when it comes to filling your recovery bucket.

Why is sleep so important to high-performance recovery?

To better understand this, let’s get a better understanding of the stages of sleep and what happens during each of those stages. First, there are 4 stages in a sleep cycle which can be broken down into 2 phases: (1) Non-REM Sleep and, (2) REM Sleep.

Stages of Sleep

Non-REM Sleep makes up the first 3 stages of the sleep cycle.

Stage 1 – The body starts to slow down including muscle activity and eye movement (REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement). This stage usually lasts 5-10 minutes.

Stage 2 –  Heart rate and breathing rate slow, body temperature drops, brain waves slow down, and your body prepares to enter deep sleep. The body goes through periods of muscle tone mixed with periods of muscle relaxation.

Stage 3 – Deep sleep stage – There is no eye movement or muscle activity.

During the non-REM stages, your body releases growth hormones to help build muscle and bone. During these stages, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, and the immune system strengthens.

Stage 4 – REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep – During this stage, brain activity increases, meaning sleep is not as deep and activity levels in the brain are like when you are awake. Your heart rate, breathing rate and eye movement increase. The major muscles that you normally control can’t move. They basically become temporarily paralyzed during REM sleep. This is your intense dream stage.

During the REM stage, your body converts short-term to long-term memory. This is also where you get improved cognitive function – alertness, reaction time, focus, and concentration.

These 4 stages make up the sleep cycle. Each cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes. As you sleep, your body moves from stage 1 through stage 4. The deep sleep stage lasts longer in the first half of your sleep and the REM stage is longer in the second half of your sleep. Your body should go through 5-7 sleep cycles in an evening.

Recommended Sleep Length for Athletes

The recommended sleep length for individuals is age dependent. Canadian Sport for Life groups athletes in the following stages of the Long-Term Athlete Development Model along with the amount of sleep they require:

STAGE Learn to Train Train to Train Train to Compete Train to Win Active for Life
AGES 8-12 yrs 11 to 16 yrs 15-23 years 18+ 18+
HOURS 9.5-10 9 8 to 10 8 to 10 7 to 9


Sleep Quality

What does a quality sleep look like? Based on the above requirements and some basic sleep guidelines, a good sleep looks like this:

  • Fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed.
  • 9-11 hours of sleep per night.
  • Wake up no more than once per night.
  • Being awake for 20 minutes or less during the night after initially falling asleep.
  • Sleeping 85% of the time while in bed.


Sleep and Athletic Performance

There have been several studies on the effect of sleep length and athletic performance. Let’s take a look at a few so we can see some of the benefits of a good sleep.

The first study took place with the Stanford University Men’s and Women’s Swim Teams.  After extending time in bed to 10 hours per night for several weeks they found an:

  • 8% improvement in 15-sprint speed
  • 20% improvement in reaction time off the starting blocks
  • 10% improvement in turn-time efficiency

The second study took place with collegiate basketball players and was published in Sleep (2011).  Again, after extending time in bed to 10 hours per night for several weeks they found an:

  • 9% improvement in free throw shooting accuracy
  • 9% improvement in three-point field goal shooting accuracy
  • 7-second improvement in an 85m sprint

The third study looked at Major League Baseball players and their sleep habits.  Of the 80 players in the study:

  • 72% of players were still in the league 3 years later if they had normal sleep habits.
  • 39% of players were still in the league 3 years later if they had poor sleep habits.
  • 14% of players were still in the league 3 years later if they had severe sleep habits.

As you can see, just focusing on sleep length alone, athletic performance improves significantly.  Essentially, you will see an improvement in speed, power, accuracy and career length just to name a few benefits.

Sleep and Injury Prevention

A chronic lack of sleep has been shown to increase injuries in sport by 1.7X in athletes who get less than 6 hours of sleep per night compared to athletes who get 8 or more hours of sleep per night.

Sleep and Immune System Health

Another study in the journal, Sleep found that participants who slept more than 7 hours a night had a 17% chance of catching a cold when exposed to the common cold while participants who had less than 5 hours of sleep had an astounding 45% chance of catching a cold when exposed to it.  That is a 30% greater chance of catching a cold with 5 or fewer hours of sleep.  Wow.

It is clear, sleep is critical in improving performance, decreasing the risk of injury and improving immune system function.  Now, how can we improve our chances of getting a better sleep?

Tips for a Good Nights Sleep
  • Develop a sleep routine (sleep hygiene) Here are some options to try – eliminate blue light from phones, computers and TVs 30-60 minutes before bed, read, take a hot shower before bed, listen to relaxing music, or stretch. You don’t need to do all of these but find the ones that work best for you and try them out.  Experiment with these.
  • Improve your sleep environment Make sure your room is cool, dark and quiet. Mask unwanted sounds with a fan or white noise or ear plugs.  If you cannot make your room darker, try a sleep mask.

There you have it, the foundation for high-performance recovery. Sleep is a weapon. Start building your good sleep habits and watch your athletic abilities and your overall health improve.

In part two we will discuss the next level of the performance pyramid – nutrition and its role in high-performance recovery. Until next time, good luck in building your new and improved sleep habits.  If you have any questions, please contact us at for more information.




  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Extra Sleep Improves Athletic Performance.”  Science Daily, 10 June 2008.
  • “the effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players.”  Mah CD, Mak KE, Kesirian EJ, Dement WC.  1 July 2011.
  • “Predicting Major League Baseball (MLB) Player Longevity via Sleepiness measurements.”  Winter WC, Potenziano BJ, Pfeifer PE, et. al. 2013
  • “Behaviourally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.”  Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MG, Cohen S.  2015.