Dr David Lee is the Clinical Director of Sleep Unlimited (www.sleepunlimited.co.uk). Most of his work is helping people with insomnia get some decent sleep but actually lots of what he teaches is brilliant for athletes – helping us understand ourselves, our sleep preferences and our circadian rhythm so we can perform at our best.

Here Dr Lee answers four questions – adopt his advice and you may be able to improve your performance.

  1. How can athletes understand whether they are an owl or a lark?

Most people can identify their preferred time of day just by asking them and there are three ‘chronotypes’: larks, owls and ambivalents.  If you prefer being up early and in bed early then you’re ‘larky’, if you like to get up late and go to bed late then you’re ‘owly’ and if you don’t mind then you’re ambivalent.

2. As most races are in the morning how can owls prepare well so they do not feel tired?

If athletes are well rested on the days (and nights) preceding a race then they should do well whichever chronotype they are.  It is possible to shift your routine for a while, so in the week before a race you can stay up late for a couple of nights and get up early (in synch with the race start time), this will build some ‘sleep pressure’ that will enable you to go to bed earlier and shift your routine backwards for 4 – 5 days before the race.  If it’s a really big event you could try to shift your sleep back a few weeks before so that you are properly entrained to your new routine before race day.  Remember though, that if you are an owl you’ll always have the propensity and innate desire to shift back to later get up times and bedtimes after the racing is done!

3. Why is it important athletes understand how their personal circadian rhythm works?

We peak and dip every 90 minutes as part of our natural body rhythms and it can be very useful to recognise this for a number of reasons:

  • It can help explain reduced performance so we don’t ‘beat ourselves up’ about not performing maximally (it’s just a dip);
  • We can change our gameplay if we know we’re dipping – consolidate – pace – go easy, then 45 minutes later when we’re peaking we can adjust our approach – burst – attack – go hard.
  • We can be more vulnerable in a dip, more likely to make rash decisions, eat the wrong foods, gamble, drink, smoke etc… so if you know about the circadian rhythm and the impact of dipping we can ‘wait 15 minutes’ if we’re feeling vulnerable, this will allow the dip to pass and then we’re less likely to be tempted into self-destructive behaviours as we’ll be more resilient as we go towards and then through a peak.

4. How can athletes identity their circadian rhythm timings so they can train when they will be in a peak?

Easy.  Look out for a naturalistic yawn.  We all do these multiple times a day (often after lunch, and especially in the evening when we’re tired).  Clock the yawn.  Then add 90 minutes onto that time to predict your next dip and so on around the 24 hour clock.  Ninety minutes, or an hour and a half, goes into the 12 hour clock eight times, and if you’re not jetlagged or shift working, or the clocks haven’t just changed in October and March (all things that disrupt the circadian rhythm), then your dips will be consistent around the 24 hour clock – e.g. a dip at 11am will correspond with a dip at 11 pm.  Once you know when your dips are you can:

  • Plan rest in your exercise routines;
  • Plan ‘go easy’ in races;
  • Add 45 minutes onto your dip times to predict peaks when you can go for it in training.and on race day!