How the best athletes hack their sleep

Sleep affects energy, focus, and concentration. For athletes, quality sleep can bring more consistent performances, faster recovery times, higher motivation levels and better decision-making.

Until the mid-90’s, this relationship between sleep and athletic performance was little understood, the prevailing sentiment being: “Sleep well, perform well.” Then technology changed the sleep game.

“In the mid-90’s there were technological advancements,” says Nick Littlehales, an internationally renowned sleep coach who works with elite sports teams. “Sport had moved to all different times and the level of the game, training, measurements, social media, communications and travel all intensified. So now we’re interested in ways to make marginal gains. We understand how important sleep can be to achieve them.”

Sleep plays a more and more important factor in achieving these incremental record-breaking gains. For sleep coaches, the focus is on making sure sleep is maximizing the body and mind’s recovery from the grueling demands of the professional athlete’s typical day. And technology is helping to maximize that recovery.

Here is some of the equipment elite athletes use to power up their rest time.

Altitude tents


Altitude training, or hypoxic training, involves sleeping in or otherwise breathing oxygen-reduced air. The body adapts to the lower oxygen content by producing more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and hemoglobin, enhancing the body’s recovery from training. Additional effects include decreased average heart rate and blood pressure and increased production and release of human growth hormone. Tents start at $4,000 but less expensive alternatives to enclosures exist, too. The most popular brand is hypoxico and is beloved among endurance athletes looking to trim down heat times.

Michael Phelps swore by the system before the 2012 Summer Olympics in London...

Ultramarathoner Josh Cox spoke with us about the merits of the tent, too: “The low oxygen really stresses the body more but helped me increase my intake later,” he said. “A lot of top tier athletes use the tents which is why you often see a lot of runners going down to sea level before a big event: this allows them to adapt to breathing rhythms and get their blood volumes back in order.”

Hyperbaric chambers


Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, on the other hand, involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized room. In a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber, the air pressure is increased to three times higher than normal air pressure, allowing the lungs to gather more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure. Blood carries this oxygen throughout the body stimulating the release of growth factors and stem cells, which promote healing. 

Famously, wide receiver Terrell Owens used the chamber to up his recovery efforts...

But Owens is far from alone in his “Michael Jackson” chamber. A number of hockey, football, basketball and soccer teams swear by the tech as well.

Sleep boots



The muscle pain, tenderness and fatigue that athletes experience after training and performance is primarily due to muscle cell damage and inflammation. This leads to the accumulation of lactic acid, creatinine and other metabolic waste the body cannot jettison completely during exercise or normal cool down; in order to efficiently recover the muscle, these elements must be removed via the body’s venous and lymphatic systems. Sleep boots’ compress the legs to up venous return and rapidly accelerate the body's reabsorption of the elements causing soreness and fatigue in the muscle. One popular model, the RecoveryPump, claims to provide the benefits of 12 to 48 hours of rest in just 2 hours of use.

Nine-time Ironman champion Meredith Kessler told us she swears by her recovery boots, as they help her over-stressed legs. “Even if I have the luxury of having a nap for even an hour, I’ll put these boots on,” she said. “It’s my way of using sleep to my advantage.”

And the NBA’s Steph Curry and the UFC’s Holly Holm are among the athletes who use RecoveryPump.

Nasal strips

You likely know these by their common name, snoring strips, and have likely seen them on everyone from NFL halfbacks to men on horseback at the Belmont stakes. Made of flexible, spring-like bands that fit above the flare of the nostrils, the strips adhere to a user’s nose. By design, the strips attempt to straighten back to their original shape and, in doing so, lift the sides of the nose and open the nasal passages. This action helps open inflamed sinus passages and makes it easier to breath, increasing the amount of oxygen available to the body for recovery 

Nasal strips have been been a common sight during NFL games and Olympic events. Funny enough, in 2014, a lot of noise was made over the fact that California Chrome, a racehorse and Triple Crown hopeful, was allowed to wear a strip at the Belmont stakes. They’re equally useful for resting athletes, as they aid recovery by limiting any sleep-breathing issues.

Light therapy

Adjusting to new time zones is a necessity for today’s constantly traveling elite athlete. And more and more teams are looking towards light therapy to help their players sleep well, diminish jetlag, and optimize performance. Bright light therapy, which requires spending time each morning staring at a precisely-tuned, sun-mimicking lamp, is common to energize players. As is starting the day with a gradual light alarm clockor some other such method.

Nearly every team that has worked sleep hygiene into their training routine, such as the University of Tennessee Volunteers or the , have implemented light therapy into their routines, be it via wake lights, blue-light blocking glasses or jetlag eliminating

The British Swim Team utilizes the Lumie, a gradual lighting system, to better help their bodies adapt to early morning wakeups.