How does your mattress affect your athletic performance?
I’m here to make a bold claim, and it is this:
Quality sleep and the right mattress CAN make you perform better in athletic activity.
There. I did it.
My wording here is intentional. It’s important to note that quality sleep and the right mattress can make you perform better in athletic activity. It’s not a guarantee.
Nonetheless, there’s research that points to the connection between quality sleep and athletic performance, and the connection between mattress choice and quality sleep. I intend to prove that:
Sleep absolutely helps athletic performance.
Mattress choice absolutely helps sleep.
Thus, mattress choice can help athletic performance.
So let’s dive right in. Here are the main points:
Sleep absolutely helps athletic performance.
Sleep may be an athlete’s best performance booster.
That, in itself, is a pretty bold claim. It’s not mine, though. It’s taken from a 2005 article of the same name from the American Psychiatric Association.
Before this gets technical, here’s the bottom line: Guess when our bodies produce natural growth hormones? When we’re sleeping.
According to William Dement, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, athletes who obtain all the sleep they need might have a “secret” advantage over their competition.
Get this, copied straight from the APA article:
After initial training, the human brain continues to learn in the absences of further practice, according to a Harvard Medical School study. The improvement occurs during sleep. And, according to the PhD’s who did the study, these findings have a direct application to athlete’s training schedules.
What all this means is that for our bodies to grow (or improve if you’re no longer getting taller), the body has to recover from the training it was put through, and the best recovery happens while sleeping.
According to a prominent workout community called Bony to Beastly, “With better sleep you’ll gain more muscle, more strength, less fat, less chronic stress, and better overall health.”
Conclusion: If you sleep well, you get smarter and more athletic compared to if you don’t sleep well.
Sleeping in makes everything better.
This one’s brief, and fun. According to a study performed by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, “sleep extension can be (an) effective means of enhancing performance in athletes.”
They tested six basketball players, having them obtain as much extra sleep as possible for two weeks and then tracked data compared to the previous two weeks of normal sleep. They noted faster sprint times, increased free-throw accuracy, and decreased fatigue.
They did the same thing for a group of swimmers. Sprint time, turn time, and even mood all improved.
Why would that be?
If sleep offers the best opportunity to produce growth hormones and the best opportunity for full recovery, the faster the improvement will come.
One of the doctor’s with Bony to Beastly noted in a forum post, “Your hair, nails, muscles, and skin all grow the most (double-triple the rate compared to while you are awake) during sleep.”
The more the better.
Conclusion: This doesn’t mean hitting the snooze a dozen times. Just sleep in if you want to!
Sleeping less makes everything harder.
The previously mentioned APA article and the Gatorade study also focused on sleep deprivation. Not surprisingly, it has bad effects.
According to the Gatorade article, sleep loss had a significant negative effect on tests involving bench press, leg press, and dead lifts. Interestingly, most of those impairments were found later in the protocol of the tests, pointing to the potential of an accumulative effect on performance based on fatigue.
The APA would agree. Dr. Dement calls the cumulative effect “sleep debt.” He reported, “When total nightly sleep is reduced by exactly the same amount each night for several consecutive nights, the tendency to fall asleep in the daytime becomes progressively stronger each day.”
Conclusion: Chronic sleep loss has serious adverse consequences on performance.
2. Mattress choice absolutely helps sleep.
You’re not going to run a marathon with 20 year old shoes.
Tools matter. If you want to accomplish something with success and efficiency, you need the right tools. That means if you run a marathon with shoes you got in the ‘90s, you won’t be surprised if you’re in agony at the finish line. Or, if you want bench press 300 pounds, you don’t try and balance gasoline jugs and sand bags on either side of the bar.
So then why is anyone surprised if they have sleep problems if their mattress is either really old, or really bad?
The National Sleep Foundation found that 92% of people say a comfortable mattress is important to a good night’s sleep.
No, you should not have the TV on while you sleep.
No, you should not eat a ton of food before you go to bed.
No, you should not respond to work emails right before bed.
But, YES, you should absolutely seek a new mattress if you’re currently tossing and turning every night. Heck, this study even found that simply getting a new bed in and of itself resulted in a decrease in stress.
Conclusion: New mattresses are better than old mattresses and comfortable mattresses are better than uncomfortable mattresses.
Over the years, foam mattresses have grown in popularity. Tempurpedic started it with memory foam, and the new bed-in-a-box companies have exploded, primarily using foam in their products.
However, there’s still a remaining mentality out there that foam mattresses are low end, not as durable, and not as comfortable.
That mentality is simply not true, especially the points about comfort. Comfort is subjective, no doubt. The best way to measure comfort, though, is by looking at pain and pressure.
Let’s start with pain. Here’s a study that was meant to assess sleep quality and comfort of participants who had lower back and shoulder pain when they woke up. They focused on 27 people and studied them in their current mattress for 21 days. They then replaced the mattresses with new mattresses specifically layered with foam and latex based on the patient’s sleep position, and studied the patients for the next twelve weeks. Guess what happened?
Improvement in back pain.
Decrease in days per week experiencing poor sleep.
Significant decreases in physical discomfort.
Here’s the best quote, and I especially like the point about sleep position, which we’ll get into in the last point:
Mic drop. It is INDEED possible to reduce pain with a sleep surface. It’s INDEED possible to increase sleep quality by replacing mattresses.
But don’t miss a key point… “based on sleep position,” he said. More on that below.
Conclusion: Mattress selection matters for sleep experience. Foam works. Pick a mattress based on sleep position, not firmness level.
Start with Pressure Relief and Sleep Position
Now what? We’re all shaped differently. What feels comfortable to one person may cause another person a lot of pain. Add to that the subjectivity of mattress comfort, and mattress research can get really messy.
Make no mistake, no matter how much research some guy did, how many different mattresses they tried, and how impressive their video is presenting their findings, there is no way to construct a single mattress to work for everyone.
But we have to start somewhere.
Pressure relief is simply a goal to minimize pain points. According to Guy’s Hospital in London, “The ideal pressure-relieving support system is comfortable, relieves pressure and prevents tissue damage.”
The good news is that whereas comfort is subjective, pressure can be measured with data.
We did a whole post on this tailored to side sleepers, who should care the most about pressure relief. Side sleepers (which is about 70% of the population by the way) often have hip, shoulder, and back pain because all of their weight isn’t evenly distributed. It focuses the entire body weight on one side of the sleeper, causing more weight in a smaller area, which then causes more pressure on the areas that extrude the furthest out on the body - the shoulders and hips. That will often contribute to an unaligned spine which causes, you guessed, back pain.
Side note: This is the whole reason why we have our customer’s take a quick test to tell us how they sleep. Mattress comfort is a lot more than just soft or firm and there’s just no way to hit everyone’s needs without asking them how they sleep. The subjective perception of soft or firm is actually pretty negligible if you’re seeking the right option for your body type - just like eating kale is good for you whether you like the taste or not.
Let me prove it.
Below is a pressure map we just did (January 10, 2019). It uses the same subject, who weighs about 160 pounds and is about 5’11”.
The image on the left is a Pillow Top, innerspring mattress from a very large manufacturer. This specific model really doesn’t target a sleep position, and simply states that the innerspring coils “provide extra support to the areas of the body that need it most.” Cool.
The image on the right is our Alpha for side sleepers, a mattress that is designed specifically to perform better for people who sleep on their side.
When looking at pressure maps, the less red the better.
Some notes on the image to the left:
Pressure maps are measure in millimeters mercury, or mmHG (click here for a translation). Think of it like golf, the lower score wins. The innerspring mattress had an average pressure of 31.23 mmHG. The Alpha, designed for side sleepers came in at 23.78 mmHG. That’s a 23.8% improvement in overall pressure.
The red areas in the back regions are essentially gone. There is still some pressure points in the hips and shoulders, some of which is pretty unavoidable. But there is a clear decrease in “red” coverage in both areas, which are reflected in the data from point #1.
Also interesting is the red pressure dripping down the thigh region that’s been removed in the Alpha. People with hip issues can likely attest that, often, when there are hip and lower back issues, you get some pain going down your legs.
Conclusion: Pick a mattress based on how you sleep, not just what you like. Softness and Firmness does not tell the whole story.
3. Mattress choice can help athletic performance.
I’ve explained why sleep is so important for athletic performance, as well as how mattress selection is a large driver in effective sleep. Therefore, by nature of the transitive property, mattress choice is an important driver in optimizing athletic performance.
If a=b and b=c, then a=c. It’s that simple.
Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback, success stories, or failures regarding mattress selection. Feel free to comment below or contact us with specific questions. If a customized mattress does sound like a good idea, check out our six question comfort test and see what we recommend for you.