Having heard a great interview with Kirk Parsley recently on Marathon Talk (Episode 299 and Episode 300 – listen here ) about the importance of sleep I was really interested to see what Lindsay Thornton, Senior Sports Psychologist at the US Olympic Committee would say about its impact and importance for Athletes. Here are there headlines…

The headlines:

  • Paying down sleep debt improves performance.
  • Sleep extension will give you even better performance.
  • More sleep = greater recovery, a chance to consolidate the mental and physical gains made during the day, fewer injuries and a better mood.
  • You need to maintain a regular sleep wake schedule.

Why we need sleep

Thornton talks about the way sleep is a performance enhancement tool for both brain and body. It improves your recovery from exercise and new skill learning as while you are asleep as all the information on everything you have learnt and done throughout the day is transferred and downloaded. Sleep also helps your metabolism (appetite and weight), tissue repair, immune function and mood. In short, she says that sleep provides a bonus learning period and you wake up a smarter, stronger version of yourself and in a better mood.

How much sleep

There is no formula for how many hours athletes should sleep but it is advised to be between 7-9 hours (Federer is said to sleep for 11 hours, LeBron James for 12). Less than six can impair your psychological and physiological functioning. The positive information from your day is the last to be downloaded so you need longer in bed to wake up positive and happier. Stanford Uni ran research with their swimmers who were set a goal of spending 10 hours in bed. The extra sleep opportunity this created improved their speed, reaction time, tumble turn times and kick times.

Sleep efficiency

It is normal to take 20 minutes to fall asleep. People often base how long they say they sleep for as the amount of time in bed but research with 124 Australian athletes showed on average they spent 8.4 hours in bed but only got 6.8 hours of sleep. This is 86% efficiency. Falling asleep immediately (around 95% sleep efficiency) is not actually a good sign as it shows you are incredibly fatigued.

Sleep debt

When you have sleep restriction it is first your mood that is impacted, then your cognitions and finally your performance. So accept if you have missed sleep that your mood will be down – it is likely that your physical performance will be ok. But you will have a perception that exercise is harder. To get out of sleep debt increase your time in bed by 15 minutes each night.

Sleep interferences

  • Alcohol helps you sleep – but doesn’t help you stay asleep.
  • Caffeine has a dose response effect and puts back your sleepiness
  • Jet lag – it takes one day per time zone to adapt. This is for body temperatures to adjust.
  • Altitude – this takes up to two weeks to adapt to.
  • Blue lights from screens mess with melatonin production and stop you sleeping. Use an app to minimize the blue light from your screen.

When to train

With sleep dictated by our circadian rhythms most of us have a cognitive peak at 9am, a dip at 2pm, a physical peak at 6pm (which could be why more world records are broken in the evening than daytime) and will find it difficult to sleep between 7pm and 10pm. We then dip at 10pm. Ideal bedtime. As your ability to do complex cognitive skills peaks earlier in the day during the morning peak and gross motor skills peak later in the day focus your training to match those times; learning new skills or techniques in the morning, endurance or fitness work in the evening.

Modify sleep routine for racing

Consider what time you will be racing – if it is at a time you know you dip then a nap in the middle of the day can be used to shift the dip. Napping is a skill. It can take up to two weeks to get into a rhythm with it. It is good for athletes but not necessary for normal people (who should be getting enough sleep at night and don’t need to perform in the evening). If you want to get into napping it will seem hard to begin with but every day you should lie down in the middle of the day and eventually you will sleep.

It is very difficult to sleep before competition but this is usually situational and transient insomnia so remember if you are struggling to sleep your competitors are probably too. Don’t get wound up over it.

Sleep when injured

If you are injured you will find it harder to sleep as you will need less sleep than usual as you have not been using so much energy. Reduce your time in bed and lower your expectations of what sleep should be. It is normal to wake up in the night. Don’t panic and think it is insomnia. Learn some relaxation strategies to help you get back to sleep.

Trouble getting to sleep

If you ruminate a lot and find this keeping you awake then after dinner write down your ‘to do’ list and your thoughts so you don’t ruminate in bed. The ‘to do’ list will still be the same in the morning. The thoughts will still be the same in the morning. They won’t have changed and you can remind yourself you can do nothing about them in the middle of the night.

Sleep tips