For some time now it has been common knowledge among athletes that getting enough rest is essential for muscle growth and repair. What has been a more recent discovery is just how much our sleeping patterns affect our waking performance.
Now, I’m sure this news may not be earth shattering. We all know that if we’re running on limited sleep we struggle through the day, but the statistics are actually amazing. That is if you like statistics, which I do.
According to this 2011 study by Cheri Mah et al., basketball players showed a 9% increase in shooting accuracy after increasing the amount of sleep they achieved. That’s game winning material. The same study group found comparable effects with swimmers; turn time, sprints and overall speed were all shown to improve as sleep length increases. “Intuitively many players and coaches know that rest and sleep are important, but it is often the first to be sacrificed,” Mah said. “Healthy and adequate sleep hasn’t had the same focus as other areas of training for peak performance.”
The sleep business is now a key part of elite sports training. Real Madrid installed eighty-one five-star rooms at their training ground for the purposes of monitoring sleep to improve the Galacticos into Universales.
The consultant behind making Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale even more of a waking nightmare for their opponents has also been working with numerous European Olympic teams. The corporate world is hot on the trail of well-rested staff too, with Aviva and Unilever leading the way.
So, what are the elite athletes doing to improve their performances that we can take advantage of in our lives?
1. Sleep is part of our training. No slacking!
It can be hard for many of us to break the habit of sleeping just six hours or less and then getting up for work. This becomes the norm and we think we're doing just fine. But the issue arises when we are aiming to improve our daytime/work performance and go to the next level, so to speak. This study finds that sleep deprivation impairs our abilities in a similar way to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. That’s enough to get you pulled over by the police in most countries in the world, and we somehow think we can perform to our best when impaired like this on a daily basis?
2. Start training earlier, don’t finish later
Our circadian rhythms all vary slightly, but as a general rule we like a routine. It is clearly going to be a tougher job to get our daily responsibilities to start later, so you can train your body to sleep earlier. As sleep and athletic performance research scientist Cheri Mah says,
Try moving back your bedtime by 30 minutes every few days to gradually increase your sleep duration. It can be helpful to set a daily alarm on your phone to help remind you of your targeted bedtime. For example, set the alarm one hour before bedtime, which gives you 30 minutes to wrap things up for the day, and 30 minutes to wind down before bed.
3. Eat like an athlete, sleep like an athlete
The Real Madrid team follow a stricter diet than most of us would prefer, but there are some key foods that the team avoid to maximise their rest. High-fat foods take longer to digest and raise the temperature of the body, which is counterproductive to a good sleep pattern. High sugar foods are also off the menu, as is caffeine.
4. What do athletes do that most of us don’t?
Plenty of exercise! Seems like an obvious answer, I’m sure. The changes in the economic structures of the developed nations over the last century have seen a shift from industrial or agricultural employment towards a high proportion of the population working in offices or other sedentary jobs. Our livelihoods used to take care of our physical exercise needs, encouraging good sleep through physical fatigue. With the increase in fat and sugar content in our diets and a diminution of physical labour, we have become a culture of over stimulated and under exercised people. Athletic pursuits enable us to redress this imbalance.
5. Nap for victory!
Culturally the English-speaking world has a somewhat negative stereotype about sleeping in the day. Northern countries have less daylight and heat than our southern neighbours, so it has been historically necessary to cram the daily tasks in one stretch. Like Bale at Madrid, gold medal Olympian Mo Farah learned from athletes from warmer climes the art of napping. Taking a rest in the daytime allows Kenyan runners to push harder in training. The adoption of this technique contributed to Farah’s rise from also-ran to pack leader. Another example of a napping culture is the Japanese. Habitually workers of hours beyond what appears to be human endurance, many Japanese people take nap breaks during the day to enable their devotion to business.
**Of course, if you're suffering from insomnia, when resetting your sleep-wake cycle, it is best to avoid naps so that you don't disrupt your night time sleep.
6. Your bedroom is your dojo
While blue light fatigue gained some traction, the effects may be over played. What is well understood is that darkness is conducive to sleep- our brains only produce melanin in good quantities at night. Artificial light interrupts this process, so thick curtains and making a positive sleep environment is key. Manchester City F.C has even used sleep-inducing wallpaper at their training ground!
7. Stretch it out!
Professional athletes have access to teams of physiotherapists and massage tables. Most of us don’t, but that doesn’t mean we can’t limber up before hitting the hay. Gentle exercise like Tai Chi and yoga are useful for us to unwind the body before sleep- and if it’s good enough for LeBron James and The All-Blacks, it’s good enough for us mere mortals.
8. Get your mentality right
If you follow sports, you might have seen a team coach talking about how their player’s mentalities are good, or suffering, or not right, and so on. Sports psychology has been incredibly popular for some time; all major teams have a specialist on staff. Part of their role is to manage the stress levels in athletes whose lives revolve around high stakes competition. A technique from the sports psychologist handbook that we can steal is to keep a notepad by the bed and record what our worries on our mind are before sleep. The list can then be set aside until morning.
9. Sleep heals
The body does the lion’s share of recovery when sleeping. Whether it’s a strained muscle or just a bad day at the office, sleep is critical to our mental and physical recuperation. Additionally, “Not getting enough sleep makes you more vulnerable to picking up illnesses and not being able to fight them off,” says Donna Arand, PhD, DABSM, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center in Dayton, Ohio. Professional athletes know that it’s hard to compete with a runny nose!
10. Meditation for medal quality sleep
In addition to the numerous other benefits of meditation, sleep is also improved. Many athletes, including marathon runners and cliff divers use meditation to visualise goals, clear the mind and improve performance. It’s not just for hippies sitting under trees! The use of meditation to balance the mind enables an athlete to take full advantage of sleep. A mind in tune with the body fights insomnia and ‘clears the table’ so we can sleep like a champion.