Sleep-deprived athletes risk poor performances, with almost three-quarters falling short of desired slumber targets by at least an hour, a new study has found.

The study, which examined the sleep routines of 175 elite Australian athletes from 12 sports, including Olympic disciplines swimming, cycling, triathlon, and professional team sport, has weighty recovery implications for coaches.

Results showed athletes were routinely shortcutting their sleep by as much as 96 minutes-per-night, with only 3% satisfying their self-assessed needs. And the shortfall can often be out of their control due to demanding competition schedules, stress, and travel.

Participants typically slept for 6.7 hours each night, significantly less than their self-assessed sleep need of 8.3 hours.

Professor Shona Halson from Australian Catholic University (ACU)’s Sports Performance, Recovery, Injury and New Technologies (SPRINT) Research Centre says insufficient sleep could result in reduced performance, increased mood disturbance, as well as a reduction in immunity, reaction time, and cognitive function.

“Sleep is the ultimate performance enhancer. The less sleep obtained, the poorer the performance,” she says in a release. “Generally, athletes cope with one or two nights of poor sleep.

“However, insufficiently rested athletes risk foregoing the enhanced adaption to training and increased general wellbeing that comes with optimal sleep.”

The study was a collaboration between Halson and Charli Sargent, Michelle Lastella, and Greg Roach from the Appleton Institute for Behavioural Science at CQ University.

Published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, the study intended to identify the subjective sleep need of elite athletes and compare it with an objective measure of their habitual sleep duration.

Participating athletes were from national teams and were excluded from the sample if they were training or sleeping at high altitude, injured, if they reported a clinical diagnosis of a sleep disorder, or if they had undertaken trans meridian travel in the fortnight prior to data collection.

Athletes who reported the most shut-eye fell asleep between 10 pm and 10:30 pm or woke between 9 am and 9:30 am. Teams (6.9 hours) fared better than individual sports (6.4 hours) and female athletes went to bed earlier than males.

The findings are illuminating for coaches and athletes preparing for major competition where perceived pressure, distractions, and unfamiliar surroundings and routines can affect sleep quality and quantity.

Halson says coaches could consider delaying morning training start times and providing athletes with targets for sleep timing to help maximize sleep duration.