Athletes dedicate much of their time and energy to improving their mental and physical capabilities through tactics like meticulous diets and rigorous workouts. However, in their resolute quest for self-betterment, many extraordinarily active people underestimate the importance of rest. 

Sleep disorders affect about 70 million people in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic. While a majority of these individuals are not elite athletes, research indicates athletes, on average, get less total sleep compared to non-athletes.

As the authors of a review published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine point out, this may be due to several factors:

  1. Demanding training schedules force athletes to wake early for workouts
  2. Downplaying of sleep deprivation in order to spend more time training
  3. Frequent travel, especially across multiple time zones, resulting in jet lag
  4. Stress from their athletic career or competition
  5. Pain from injury or strenuous training
  6. Additional common sleep-disruptors, including the prevalence of blue light 

Sleep affects various cognitive and physical elements and functions, from energy and appetite to stress and immune response. It also impacts athletic performance, including strength, endurance, reaction time, accuracy, judgment, and healing and recovery.

In addition to recognizing the importance of sleep and practicing healthy bedtime habits, a supportive, comfortable bed can help athletes get the rest they need.

The Role of Sleep in Recovery and Athletic Performance

It is a well-established fact that even moderate insomnia can significantly impact a person’s well-being. For athletes, the implications may be even more severe.

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Athletes 

For all people, insomnia may cause issues such as fatigue, irritability, cognitive difficulties, and a feeling of sluggishness. It can also cause or exacerbate various conditions, including stress, depression, anxiety, and pain, and decrease immune system function. 

Athletes may be even more vulnerable to certain conditions, including chronic stress and pain, both of which can cause significant harm without being compounded by sleep deprivation. 

Sleep is also critical for athletes to decrease the risk of injury. 

Sleep & Injury Prevention for Athletes 

A study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport examined 95 endurance athletes over 52 weeks, evaluating weekly data regarding the participants’ cardiorespiratory, gastrointestinal, psychological/lifestyle, sleep, training load, and new injury occurrences.

Researchers found athletes with decreased psychological/lifestyle quality and those who slept less than seven hours per night were much more likely to be injured compared to athletes who reported a favorable psychological/lifestyle quality and those who slept more than seven hours per night. 

A study published in the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research also found getting too little sleep may decrease bone mineral density and increase the risk of osteoporosis. 

Fortunately, athletes, particularly those who regularly practice weight training, tend to have higher bone density than non-athletes. However, it is nonetheless an essential factor to note. 

Despite having a slightly higher bone mineral density, athletes involved in high-impact sports may be more susceptible to fractures and other injuries than the average population. 

Moreover, osteoporosis is a leading cause of fractures among older adults, particularly women, and even very active women are not immune to the condition.

Sleep & Athletic Ability

The International Journal of Sports Medicine review compiles evidence from 40 studies over 38 years. In it, authors report sleep deprivation can have significant effects on athletic performance. 

Researchers found multiple psychomotor functions, including coordination, accuracy, and agility, are severely impaired by sleep deprivation. 

The authors also found sleep-deprived athletes perceived their physical exertion to be greater while being unable to match their well-rested levels of strength, vigor, speed, and endurance. 

Finding the Best Bed for Athletes: Factors to Consider

There’s a mountain of scientific evidence to tie athletic performance to sleep. It’s clear that, to perform at your best, you need a good night’s rest. The question, though, is how exactly you achieve that restful sleep. 

For some athletes, sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress could be just another factor keeping them up at night.

There is no one best mattress for sports professionals and other extraordinarily active people. The ideal bed varies from one person to another and depends largely on individual preference. However, knowing what factors are likely to affect your comfort and sleep quality can help you find a mattress to meet your needs. 

A few of the most important factors to consider when searching for a suitable mattress for sports players include:  

Sleeping Position

Individuals who sleep on their back or side may prefer a firmer mattress than those who sleep on their stomachs. Side sleepers might require more pressure relief, as well, to prevent tension on pain points like the hips and shoulders.

Weight

Heavier individuals may likewise put more emphasis on pressure relief and responsiveness compared to lighter sleepers. 

Preferred Sport

The best mattress for weightlifters may be different from the best bed for a cyclist or sprinter. Certain sports tend to be associated with specific side effects, such as knee pain in runners or shoulder pain in basketball and tennis players. Consider looking for a mattress that relieves stress from your current or anticipated potential pain points. 

Important Mattress Features for Athletes

There is a wide variety of mattresses available in different materials and firmness, and thickness levels. Many modern products also offer attributes like pressure relief, temperature regulation, and contouring, which may help you fall asleep faster and enjoy more restful slumber.

For athletes, in particular, you’ll find that the following characteristics will be the most important when shopping for a new mattress:

Firmness

Generally, a firmer mattress offers better support and spinal alignment. Spinal balance is crucial, as a misaligned spine can cause or exacerbate problems, including muscle strain, headaches and pain, and stiffness of the back, neck, hips, shoulders, and joints.

Spinal support is essential for athletes who may be more prone to pain and discomfort and whose performance may be affected by spinal misalignment and its consequences.

Thickness

Mattress thickness, also referred to as height or depth, is also important. Most of the best mattresses are between eight and 14 inches deep. Thinner mattresses may not provide adequate cushion, which may exacerbate pain points.

Too-high mattresses, on the other hand, may be challenging to get in and out of. For most people, the ideal height is one at which your feet touch the floor when you sit on the edge of the bed. However, this rule of thumb may not apply to individuals who are shorter than average.

Pressure Relief

There are a few ways a mattress may offer relief for key pressure points, including its material (e.g., memory foam, latex, or gel), contouring properties, and “comfort zones.” Pressure relief refers to how a mattress reduces tension on certain parts of the body and promotes overall balance. It is crucial for muscle recovery in athletes or for anyone with chronic pain or other musculoskeletal ailments. 

Breathability

Breathability is also important, especially for those who tend to sleep hot. If you often awake uncomfortably warm and sweaty in the night, look for a mattress with built-in temperature control and ventilation for a more comfortable experience.

Contouring

Body-contouring is a feature many sleepers enjoy, but not all. It refers to mattresses that respond to body heat and temperature to conform to the sleeper’s body shape. It can feel a bit like a full-body “hug” and may help assuage pain and swelling. If you or your partner tend to toss and turn in the night, a body-contouring mattress may also be beneficial in isolating motion to prevent waking the other sleeper.

What Mattress Type is Best for Athletes?

With these features in mind, it’s time to narrow down your search by mattress type. Of the vast array of products on the market, there are five primary categories. Each of these mattress types has its benefits and drawbacks when it comes to providing comfort and support for active individuals.

Innerspring

Provided they’re made with quality materials, these mattresses can tick all the boxes for what you’re looking for in a mattress for athletes.

Because they are made with a network of coils or springs, supportiveness is these mattresses’ most significant perk. They are also naturally well-ventilated and tend to sleep cooler compared to some.

A tried-and-true option for sleepers of all shapes and sizes, innerspring mattresses have been in production for several decades. Manufacturing processes have become highly efficient and materials are relatively inexpensive, innerspring products are generally the least expensive. 

Just make sure to “spring” for high-quality coils and fabrics (unless you’re nostalgic for the feeling of your old dorm room mattress jabbing its coils into your side).

Memory Foam

Originally developed to support NASA astronauts upon launch, memory foam mattresses are famous for their body-contouring, motion isolation, and pressure-relieving attributes. It is generally also quite supportive.

The main caveat, though, is that traditional memory foam tends to trap body heat and is not very breathable. This can be a problem if you’re looking for a cool place to lay your head after a day of working out under the hot sun. However, many manufacturers have found solutions by creating built-in air channels and cooling and moisture-wicking fabrics.

If you opt for memory foam due to its pressure relieving properties, just make sure it’s also designed for breathability.

Gel

Gel mattresses, like memory foam and latex, provide body contouring, support, and responsiveness and are typically great beds for athletes and people with musculoskeletal concerns. Gel mattresses consist of gel beads mixed into memory foam or a gel layer laid atop memory foam.

The result is a cooler bed that offers the benefits of memory foam without the risk of overheating.

Latex

Latex mattresses offer the same benefits as memory foam, including body contouring, supportiveness, and pressure relief. The main difference is that latex is naturally bouncier, more responsive, and cooler. Natural latex, made from rubber tree sap, is also an eco-friendly option with antimicrobial properties, making it a win-win for your health and the health of the environment.

Natural latex can be expensive, but it’s more durable than synthetic and is not prone to off-gassing of volatile organic compounds.

Hybrid

Hybrid mattresses are generally some of the best overall because they offer the best of both worlds.. These mattresses combine materials, like innerspring and memory foam or latex, to provide some of the best qualities of each. This could, for example, include a pressure-relieving memory foam top layer over a supportive network of innersprings.

Just keep in mind that this mix-and-match of materials does come with a higher price tag.

The Best Mattresses for Athletes: The Bottom Line 

Ultimately, selecting the best athlete mattress is a matter of personal preference. However, each best sports mattress shares standard features, including superior supportiveness, pressure relief, breathability, and contouring.

Also, ensure the product you purchase is made with high-quality, durable materials and comes with a 100-night sleep trial (at minimum) and warranty. For product reviews and more tips on finding the perfect mattress, click here.