Sleep and the teenage athlete – Are you getting enough?

By Karen Harrison, Director of Health and Athletic Development


How often have we heard that we sleep approximately one-third of our lives away?  Considered essential to our survival, it is also important to realize that obtaining good quality sleep, in sufficient amounts, has significant effects not only on your health but your ability to perform optimally in an athletic setting.

The recommendation by most organizations (e.g. National Sleep Foundation and American Academy of Pediatrics) is that teenagers get approximately 8-10 hours of sleep a night!  And yes, it is recognized that everyone has slightly different needs, so some people do require less sleep than others.  However, if you are training regularly, chances are you may need more sleep than the average person.

You should also be aware that “catching up” on the weekends for a lack of sleep during the week isn’t the answer.  Using the weekend to “catch-up” is a good indication that the quality of sleep during the week is less than ideal and this can become a harmful pattern.

During the teenage years, your biological clock (circadian rhythm) makes it more difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m.  With an accompanying desire to sleep in later the next morning, it does not seem like the ideal scenario when you are required to attend either school or training early.  In teenagers, Melatonin, the “sleep hormone” is released at different times of the day compared to adults, thus affecting the sleep/wake cycle.  It is no wonder you feel like skipping breakfast to get those final few minutes of sleep in the mornings!

One of the first indications that you may be suffering from sleep deprivation is an inability to control your emotions, especially anger.  Stress, worry and frustration can be higher and even routine tasks can seem harder.  Research has shown that a lack of sleep can negatively affect:

  1. Cognitive skills e.g. mood, focus and concentration, decision making, short-term memory and learning;
  2. Fine motor skills e.g. reduced accuracy in hand/eye co-ordination, reaction time and proprioception (sense of balance and body awareness);
  3. Physical growth and recovery from exercise, and
  4. Immunity e.g. an increased risk of illness and injury.

Interestingly, recent research presented at an American Academy of Pediatrics conference suggests that student athletes who obtained eight or more hours of sleep each night were 68 percent less likely to be injured than their peers who slept less.  As you can imagine, with such far reaching effects, the impact of sleep deprivation on the life of a student athlete is significant.

There is a small percentage of teenagers who do suffer with sleep conditions such as insomnia or narcolepsy, and for those students, seeking medical advice is essential.  For the remainder, there are a few things to consider to get the most out of this valuable commodity.  What you eat and drink, the amount and type of training you do and your bed time routine can impact on the quality of sleep you experience.

Tips for better sleep:

  1. Retire the electronics well before bedtime – phones, computers, iPads emit a blue light that tricks the body into thinking it is daytime.
  2. Avoid caffeine – it may not stop you getting to sleep but can disrupt the deep sleep phase necessary for restorative sleep.
  3. Bed is for sleeping e.g. avoid watching TV or studying in bed.
  4. Intensive exercise too close to bedtime may keep you awake.
  5. Keep to a routine as best you can – going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time each day.
  6. Dim the lights 30-60 mins before your bedtime – bright lights tell the brain it is time to be awake.
  7. Use bright lights upon waking.

In general, with sufficient sleep, people tend to eat better, manage stress more successfully, perform better at school as well as in the sporting setting; and are injured less frequently.  In fact, one could consider sleep, a performance enhancement tool!  Speak to your coaches about the strategies that might work if you feel you are not getting sufficient good quality sleep.



Eating for your sport – Nutrition and Sleep; Nestle New Zealand, Claire Turnbull.

Teens and Sleep.  The National Sleep Foundation.

Teenagers and Sleep. Iowa High School Athletic Association.


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