Sleep Apnea and Sports

If you’re a sports geek like I am…you are ecstatic about what the next few months is going to bring! The MLB World Series was epic, the NFL and College Football seasons are well underway, the NHL and NBA are just getting going, and NCAA Basketball is just around the corner!

To me…this is the best time of the year to be a sports fanatic!

We watch those amazing athletes night-in and night-out! We’re in awe of what they are able to do! Unfortunately, many of those “invincible” individuals are dealing with health issues just like the rest of us. One in particular, is obstructive sleep apnea.

athlete fake sleeping

Sleep = Working Out

An argument can be made that sleep is more important for professional athletes than people of other careers. The benefits from sleep are a major factor in your overall health. Seeing as the profession of an athlete is to be in top physical shape, sleep becomes a pillar of their success.

Multiple professional athletes have expressed issues they’ve faced due to complications with sleep apnea:

  • Ryan Jensen, NFL Offensive Lineman
    • “Football star Ryan Jensen said that a sleep apnea diagnosis ‘saved my career,’ after he could not understand why he was losing his strength and never feeling rested even after being in bed for over 8 hours a night.” (ABC News Story, Thorbecke & Behrendt)
    • Jensen also mentioned his parents noticing a major difference in his behavior prior to his diagnosis.
    • He was getting less than 2 hours of sleep most of the time, even though he would be “in bed” for over 8 hours.
  • Prince Fielder, MLB First Baseman
    • He noticed he never felt rested, even though he felt like he was sleeping more than enough, so he had a sleep study done.
    • “The study revealed 39 breathing pauses in one hour, a startling discovery for Fielder. Anything over 30 breathing pauses is considered serious.” (Athletes in the Spotlight for Sleep Apnea, Hansen)
    • He reported feeling better after just one night of sleep from the CPAP treatment.
  • Ricky Doyle, College Basketball
    • Doyle expressed issues focusing during classes and team activities.
    • He was diagnosed with depression, then referred to a sleep clinic.
    • Doyle was receiving only 2 hours of sleep per night on average.
    • CPAP was another life-saver..

Athletes are Prone to Sleep Conditions

Professional athletes are usually much larger than the average human being. Larger people mean larger necks, larger muscles, larger bodies weighing them down. A large neck and being “heavy” (in terms of body-weight) are telltale signs of possible sleep apnea issues.

A study conducted in 2003 showed that an average of 1 in 7 professional football players has obstructive sleep apnea. We can all agree that the majority of football players are monstrous men. Therefore, it is easy to see why so many of them would suffer from OSA.

Ways OSA Affects Athletic Performance

fatigued athlete

Reaction Time

The difference between a home-run and a strikeout are hundredths of a second…catching that 60-yard pass or coming up a fingertip short are separated by mere tenths of a second. Studies suggest that the reaction time of someone who is short on sleep is similar, if not worse, than someone who has had no less than 4 alcoholic beverages! That’s crazy to think about!


football injury

Studies show an increased risk of injury to athletes that reported lack of sleep. Proper sleep is natural medicine. A tired athlete = a slower athlete, and a slower athlete leads to lack of performance.

  • A running back that is not 100% may not react in time to miss being blindsided, and tears his ACL.
  • A batter who only slept 2 hours the previous night would not react soon enough to the 98mph fastball coming at his elbow, resulting in a fracture.

Bad sleep leads to fatigue, and fatigue lowers your body’s immune system. A faulty immune system means the athlete cannot effectively fight any injuries and illnesses.

Lastly, sleep is a rejuvenating process for your body. Therefore, an athlete that is not receiving enough rest will not replenish the energy they need to function every day.

“If you told an athlete you had a treatment that would reduce the chemicals associated with stress, that would naturally increase human growth hormone, that enhances recovery rate, that improves performance, they would all do it. Sleep does all of those things.” (Sleep Apnea and Sports Injuries, Hines)

Accuracy & Quickness


We’ve already established that lack of sleep will decrease your cognitive ability. Athletes need to be at peak physical and mental performance. An athlete that cannot focus, and mentally breakdown what they need to assess for their game decisions will lack performance.

A study was done with a group of basketball players that proves sleep is a major factor of performance. The players went a month on their usual sleep schedules to establish a starting point. Then, they went through almost two months of trying to sleep for as much as 10 hours per night.

The results: “Measures of athletic performance specific to basketball were recorded after every practice including a timed sprint and shooting accuracy. Subjects demonstrated a faster timed sprint following sleep extension. Shooting accuracy improved, with free throw percentage increasing by 9% and 3-point field goal percentage increasing by 9.2%. Improvements in specific measures of basketball performance after sleep extension indicate that optimal sleep is likely beneficial in reaching peak athletic performance. ” (Sleep Apnea and Sports Injuries, Hines)

Mental Errors

baseball error

Errors occur in sports regardless of the reason, we’re all human, we make mistakes. However, lack of sleep impairs judgement, motivation, focus, memory, and the ability to learn.

A study has shown that even though more repetition should increase ability, fatigue and lack of sleep can offset the practice..

“On the field, one study has shown that MLB players show decreased ‘plate discipline’ as the season progresses. Meaning the number of times a batter swings at a ball outside of the strike-zone increases. While common logic would predict that plate discipline would improve over the season – as players had more practice and at-bats – the opposite was shown to be true. MLB players consistently showed better judgement at the beginning of the season than at the end. The suspected cause? Mental fatigue during an arduous 162 game season.” (Sleep Apnea and Sports Injuries, Hines)


The factors listed and explained above all combine to affect the length of an athlete’s career. Many sports icons were lucky enough to have long, prosperous careers. Unfortunately, more athletes succumb to injuries that prematurely end their career, potentially resulting from the day-in and day-out lack of good sleep. 


  • Hansen, Kathy. “Athletes in the Spotlight for Sleep Apnea :: Simple Sleep Services  Think Young, Healthy Star Athletes Don’t Get Obstructive Sleep Apnea? Think Again. Texas Ranger’s Hitter, Prince Fielder, and Michigan Wolverine’s .” Simple Sleep Services, 5 Apr. 2016,
  • Hines, Jennifer. “Alaska Sleep Education Center.” Sleep Apnea and Sports Injuries, 6 Mar. 2018,
  • Thorbecke, Catherine, and Taylor Behrendt. “NFL Star Ryan Jensen Says Sleep Apnea Diagnosis ‘Saved My Career’.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 8 Sept. 2017,
  • Vasta, Chris. “Better Sport Performance Through CPAP.”, 27 Jan. 2014,

About the Author


Jason Smith is recognized by the board of polysomnographic technologists (BRPT) as a registered polysomnographic technologist (RPSGT) since 2003.