From the Archives: Get Better, Faster, Stronger While you Sleep.

I’m re-posting this one as a reminder of how much can happen when we prioritize sleep and understand more about its benefits.  Sleep isn’t just for resting any more.  You can actually DO something in your sleep to become a better athlete and person.  Make it happen!


By Dr. Allison Belger

It’s probably not news to you that sleep is good for us.  We’ve heard since we were kids that we need a good night’s sleep.  For those of us who are athletes or are interested in our training and performance, sleep matters a lot, and it behooves us to get enough and to make sure it’s of a good quality.

Most of us know that we don’t feel great when we are sleep-deprived.  We know that our mood suffers, our motivation declines, and we generally have less energy.  My goal here is to break down some of the less obvious evidence about sleep and performance for you, so that I’m not just another do-gooder telling you to get your Z’s.  My particular focus here is how you can actually DO something in your sleep—how somehow, you can work towards being better at a skill.  Talk about killing two birds with one stone; this could be seriously efficient.

Consolidation refers to the process of strengthening a skill or memory so that it can become a permanent part of your repertoire and not subject to interference.  Of special consideration for physical endeavors, it turns out that motor skill learning and consolidation show far more improvement after sufficient sleep periods than after the passage of time spent awake.  Interestingly, some research has found that performance gains on motor tasks are enhanced when the sleep period occurs immediately after training,3 and sleep-dependent learning is most pronounced for tasks that prove most difficult prior to sleep periods.5  In other words, the harder the skill, the more important sleep becomes for consolidation and mastery.  Even naps of varying duration have shown to improve performance on motor memory consolidation.2

You hardcore athletes out there might not care so much, but studies also show that cognitive functioning improves when sleep occurs after learning.  For example, performance on visual perceptual learning tasks and memory tests has been shown to improve after sleep periods, far more than it does after the simple passage of time.  People have been found to respond better to task training, be less prone to training burnout, and more likely to consolidate memory when training is followed by sufficient sleep periods.2, 6, 9, 10

A 2012 study of collegiate athletes demonstrated that increasing nightly sleep periods of almost two hours over a period of a few weeks led to performance gains on electronic psychomotor vigilance tasks (sustained attention, reaction-time test with simple stimuli) and sport-related skills (basketball shooting accuracy and sprint times).12  In another study, teen athletes whose sleep was restricted or of poor quality were more likely to perceive subsequent (next-day) tasks as challenging and were more likely to avoid completing them when given options.  Basically, their perceptions of what they could handle were affected by how much good sleep they had gotten the night before.4

If you think you can get by with shortened sleep durations at night, keep in mind that the effects of early awakenings have been shown to be most problematic when it comes to motor learning and performance.  In other words, you are more likely to experience a decrease in your motor performance and power output if you miss out on the hours just before optimal awakening in the morning (perhaps you get up early to train or go to work) than if you miss out on early sleep hours by going to bed later than is optimal.1,8  It seems there is something critical with regards to motor learning about the type of non-REM sleep that occurs in the hours just prior to awakening.   The good news is that post-lunch naps have an ameliorative effect and can do wonders for performance increases, even when you haven’t slept enough at night.10

You care enough about your performance to consider pre-and post-workout nutrition, to hire a coach for your programming and training needs, to buy the right running shoes, or to see the best golf pro in town.  Make sure you’re not ignoring the importance of a good night’s sleep, a well-timed nap, and the other nuances outlined above.  If you’re not an athlete but are a doctor or a babysitter or a teacher or a mechanic or a rocket scientist, the implications are equally profound:  sleep is a critical factor in performance across task types, and deprivation messes with our moods, our hormones, and our capacity to learn and execute skills.  Sleep well, take naps (especially after learning new skills), and start “practicing” your craft in your sleep.  It literally can be the difference between a mediocre and an awesome version of you.


1. Asher, J.  (2002). Power Nap Prevents Burnout; Morning Sleep Perfects a Skill. Press Release NIMH Press.

2. Debarnot, Ursula Castellani, Eleonora; Valenza, Gaetano; Sebastiani, LauraGuillot, Aymeric (2011). Daytime naps improve motor imagery learning.  Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience. 11(4): 541-550.

3. Doyon, Julien; Korman, Maria; Morin, Amélie; Dostie, Valérie; Tahar, Abdallah Hadj; Benali, Habib; Karni, Avi; Ungerleider, Leslie G.; Carrier, Julie (2009).  Contribution of night and day sleep vs. Simple passage of time to the consolidation of motor sequence and visuomotor adaptation learning.  Experimental Brain Research, 195(1): 15-26.

4. Engle-Friedman, Mindy; Palencar, Valerie; Riela, Suzanne (2010). Sleep and effort in adolescent athletes.  Journal of Child Health Care, 14(2): 131-141.

5. Kuriyama, Kenichi; Stickgold, Robert; Walker, Matthew, P.  (2004).  Sleep-dependent learning and motor-skill complexity Learning & Memory 11(6): 705-713.

6.  Mednick, Sara Carole (2003). Naps prevent perceptual deterioration and facilitate learning in local networks of human visual cortex.  Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 64(5-B): 2413.

7. O’Toole M. 2005. Overreaching and overtraining in endurance athletes. In: Postolache T, Ed. Sports chronobiology. Clinics sports medicine, 24(2): 3-17. Philadelphia: W.B Saunders Company.

8. Souissi, Nizar; Souissi, Mohamed; Souissi, Hichem; Chamari, Karim; Tabka, Zouhair; Dogui, Mohamed; Davenne, Damien (2008).  Effect of time of day and partial sleep deprivation on short-term, high- power output.  Chronobiology International, Vol 25(6): 1062-1076.

9. Walker MP, Stickgold R. (2005). It’s practice, with sleep, that makes perfect: implications of sleepdependent learning and plasticity for skill performance. In: Postolache T, Ed. Sports chronobiology. Clinics sports medicine, 24(2): 301–18. Philadelphia: W.B Saunders Company.

10. Waterhouse, J.; Atkinson, G.; Edwards, B.; Reilly, T. (2007).  The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25(14):1557-1566.

11. Walker, Matthew P.; Brakefield, Tiffany; Seidman, Joshua; Morgan, Alexandra; Hobson, J. Allan; Stickgold, R. (2003).  Sleep and the Time Course of Motor Skill Learning.  Learning & Memory, 10(4): 275-284.  

12  No Authorship Indicated (2012). Extending athletes’ sleep to improve performance and well-being.  Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology,  34(3): 434.


  1. Marco Capone says:

    Is there a way to subscribe to a mailing list each time an article is posted? Also, is there a link to archives?

    • Hi Marco,
      Thanks for reading! You can go to the home page of and in the bottom right corner there’s a button that says: Follow +. Just click on that and you should receive emails each time I post. As for the archives, you should be able to just keep scrolling down through the articles.
      Thanks again for your interest!
      ~Allison of

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