For elite athletes in every sport, the margins between winning or losing have never been finer. The gruelling training regimes of top level athletes have to be balanced out by effective rest and recovery to ensure that the athlete is able to perform at their peak, both mentally and physically.
Clearly, the physical training that an athlete undergoes in the build up to competing is crucial to any success, but in recent years, elite athletes have also been looking at perfecting their sleep to improve rest and recovery as well as their cognitive abilities.
Sleep science is becoming more important for helping elite sportspeople achieve optimal performance. Real Madrid have hired dedicated sleep experts to work with their squad, looking at improving their sleep environment (temperature, air quality, mattresses) and adjusting their sleep patterns to deliver optimal recovery and peak performance. But it’s not only the Spanish footballing giants that are prioritising the importance of sleep as part of their ‘game day’ preparation; a huge collection of athletes including Roger Federer, Michael Phelps and Sir Chris Hoy have all hailed sleep as a crucial aspect of helping them achieve peak performance.
After looking at the benefits of better sleep, and the risks of sleep deprivation for athletes, we caught up with 4 elite athletes from different sports to see how they incorporate sleep into their training and preparation.
The benefits of sleep extension for athletes:
To look at the benefits of better sleep for athletes, it’s important to look the effects on both cognitive performance (reaction times, processing visual information, decision making etc) as well as physical performance.
A study conducted by Stanford University, CA monitored the performance of its Varsity Basketball players before and after increasing their length of sleep from 6-9 hours a night to 10 hours over a period of a few weeks. Making this change lead to a dramatic increase in the players shooting accuracy. The players free throw percentages increased by 9% with more sleep, and their 3-point field goal percentage increased by 9.2%. The players average reaction times also improved following the sleep extension, meaning the players could react quicker to on court incidents. The results of this study therefore clearly show an increase in quality sleep time to correlate with better cognitive performance from the athletes.
Another study conducted by the same university looked at the effect of sleep extension on the physical performance of swimmers from both the men’s and women’s University swimming teams. In this study, the athletes also extended their length of sleep to 10 hours per night for 6-7 weeks and were tested on their 15m sprint times (amongst other factors). The results saw an average improvement of 0.5 seconds in their 15m sprint times (no small decrease given the short distance), as well as an average reduction of 23.9 points in their fatigue levels (calculated using the Profile Of Moods States psychological test). In this study, the increase in sleep times therefore showed a significant increase in the physical performance of the athletes, as well as reduction of fatigue levels.
The dangers of sleep deprivation for athletes:
Getting a better night’s sleep can greatly help an athlete perform to the best of their physical and cognitive abilities. However, in the same way, a lack of sleep can be extremely damaging to the athlete’s performance.
Having any kind of sleep deprivation immediately puts an athlete at a disadvantage. Studies such as that of Williamson and Feyer show that a person deprived of sleep for 17-19 hours can lead to similar results as having a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.05%, the legal drink drive limit in Scotland (and bordering on the legal drink drive limit for the rest of the UK). Elite athletes need to be in the best frame of mind and peak condition when competing, so as sleep deprivation can have similar effects to being under the influence of alcohol, ensuring good quality of sleep is seen as a key part of any elite athlete’s preparation. This makes learning to cope with pre-game nerves the night before competing a big factor in ensuring ideal performance levels, as they could greatly inhibit an athletes quality and amount of sleep.
Sleep deprivation can also take a significant toll on athlete’s bodies. This is largely because sleep is when the body’s tissues grow and repair themselves, so shortening this ‘repair window’ is reducing the time available for the body to properly repair any injuries or strengthen any weaknesses.
A study undertaken at the Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles aimed to show this relationship between sleep deprivation and injuries by surveying 112 adolescent athletes. The results strongly support the notion that sleep deprivation can leave the athlete’s body more vulnerable to sporting injuries, with athletes who slept for an average of less than 8 hours per night being 1.7 times more likely to suffer an injury than those who slept on average longer than 8 hours per night.
The Athlete’s View:
So how does all of this affect the athlete’s approach to making sure they are able to perform at their peak? We spoke to 4 elite athletes, George North, Louis Smith, Becky James and Lawrence Okolie about how they incorporate sleep into their preparations to compete at the highest level in their respective sports.
From their responses, it’s clear to see that regardless of the type of sport, be it rugby, gymnastics, cycling or boxing, sleep is universally seen as a crucial ingredient for success in elite sporting performance.
George North – Northampton Saints and International Rugby Player:
Leesa: In recent years, effective rest and recovery between training sessions and games has become more and more important in rugby. How do club and international teams monitor sleep to ensure players are at their peak performance levels for each game?
George: With the Wales squad, the staff place a huge amount of importance on sleep. They take a very disciplined approach with us, and every morning we have to record how many hours sleep we’ve had, and look at the quality of our night’s sleep.
Leesa: Have you noticed any changes or new developments in the way teams and players approach sleep in recent years?
George: As the sport gets more and more competitive, players are forever looking for that extra edge, and sleep has proven to be hugely important in any athlete’s training to make sure they are at peak performance on game day. As a result, the care and attention towards getting good and effective sleep has definitely increased.
Leesa: From a sleeping point of view, who is the worst room-mate you have had when playing abroad and why?
George: Liam Williams is the loudest snorer! Once I even had to drag my mattress into the bathroom in an attempt to get some sleep!
Louis Smith – 4 time Team GB Olympic medal Gymnast:
Leesa: How do you and your coaches ensure you are able to perform at your peak both mentally and physically in the build up to a competition?
Louis: Rest & recovery are equally important to training. As a gymnast, we put our bodies through so much it is really important we get good amounts of sleep and eat well, so that we recover well. If we don’t rest and recover properly, we can’t put what we need to into training and can get injured. Sleep is vital and I love sleeping! With good sleep, my mind and body are more rested, which is hugely important going into any competition.
Leesa: When travelling abroad to compete, how do you reduce the effects of jetlag and competing in different time zones?
Louis: The key is to get on top of it early when you arrive somewhere. Try and get your sleep into the correct time zone asap. If you mess around with it, you can feel the effects of jetlag for ages. This might involve staying awake when you desperately want to sleep, but you have to fight through it.
Leesa: Finally, this question isn’t necessarily sleep related, but can you tell us about any amusing incidents you have seen from the famous Athletes Villages when competing in major competitions?
Louis: Sorry, what happens in the Athletes village stays in the Athletes village!
Becky James – 2 time Team GB Olympic medal Cyclist, who recently announced her retirement from competitive cycling after 13 years:
Leesa: When you were in intense training periods, how did sleep feature as part of your training and recovery regime?
Becky: Sleep played a huge role in my training and recovery regimes. When we were in big blocks of training, I always felt like I could sleep so much more. With all other options of recovery, ice baths, stretching etc, sleep was always the most important part.
Leesa: Ensuring effective rest and recovery between training and competitions has become increasingly more important for cyclists due to the gruelling training regimes. How did you and your coaches ensure you were at peak performance both mentally and physically in the build up to a competition?
Becky: To ensure I was at my peak going into a competition, I made sure I did everything right. I liked to write a plan alongside my training programme. So I planned my sleep, my diet, what I’d be doing on my rest days. I also wore my Fitbit daily and use the resting heart rate as a way of telling if I was getting run down or over training if it went up by more than 8 beats.
Leesa: How did you stay relaxed and focussed before a big competition? Did the heightened media attention ever become difficult to deal with?
Becky: Its something I’ve worked on over the past few years with my sports psychologist. I learned how to stop the negative thoughts and I focus a lot on my breathing. The media attention is fine but I tried to avoid social media around my racing schedule, as I found it could be quite distracting.
Lawrence Okolie – Professional cruiserweight boxer, ex-team GB:
Leesa: You’ve had an exciting start to your professional boxing career! Can you give us a bit of insight into some of the main differences between the amateur and professional sport?
Lawrence: Now, when I fight it feels like there is a lot more on the line: your health, your pride, your career. There is just a lot more at stake in every department. There is a lot more reward, but with that comes greater risks. In the amateurs, you can take a loss, learn, recover, and come back from it. Now I’m a professional, I don’t have that luxury, all your mistakes are splashed all over the national media for people to see and judge, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s meant I have had to develop as a fighter and a man, a lot quicker than the normal person my age. It’s worth the risk though, as the reward is that I will be able to support my family and give them the sort of life that I want us all to have.
Leesa: How do you stay relaxed and focussed before a big fight? Does the heightened media attention ever become difficult to deal with?
Lawrence: I just make sure I get a good night’s sleep, and have faith and belief that all the training I’m doing is putting me in the best possible position for victory. I just see the media as an extra distraction that you have to deal with. It’s just another voice amongst thousands that have their own opinion. At the end of the day, they can’t fight for me or my opponent, so anything they say, good or bad, is irrelevant to me.
Leesa: Since changing over to the professional sport have you noticed a change in approach towards sleep, rest and recovery?
Lawrence: Now I just realise a lot better how important it is to get the rest I need, and that if I neglect it, I suffer a lot more than I should in training.