Evidence-based sleep management to support your performance and wellbeing
The jury is still out on whether, by extending sleep beyond its typical duration, performance can be reliably enhanced (so-called ‘sleep extension’ interventions). What is certain, however, is that inadequate sleep will undermine your efforts to maintain and improve your performance. Optimal sleep will support alertness, recovery, concentration and memory – and your confidence. But unlike your training programme, or a workout, or your dietary regime, sleep isn’t something you can just ‘do’. As mentioned in our first post, sleep doesn’t work like that because it isn’t under direct conscious control. But we can influence our sleep, and we can even train it!
Here are the first of our Top 10 principles for managing sleep during training periods, and in the run-up to competitions.
1. Recognise your own sleep need. Don’t base your personal sleep duration targets on the self-reported sleep quantities of other athletes (however successful they may be). Individual sleep needs differ, and you really don’t want to introduce unrealistic and unachievable goals into your personal routines. Rather, aim to sleep enough to minimise daytime fatigue and optimise the experience of restoration. This can vary by an hour or more per night among similarly aged healthy people.
2. Adjust your sleep to meet the demands of training. Regular early training start-times (for example those associated with swimming, rowing, and triathlon) can be associated with shorter sleep durations and, as a result, increased pre-training fatigue. If, during the training cycle, you sacrifice sleep in the morning, try to compensate either by going to bed earlier in the evening, or by taking naps.
3. Be a smart napper. Where schedules allow, napping can be an effective way to alleviate feelings of day-time sleepiness and fatigue, and improve day-time wellbeing and performance. Naps of less than 30 minutes, taken during the ‘nap zone’ between midday and 4pm are probably best (during this period the circadian rhythm naturally ‘dips’, with a temporary fall in core body temperature accompanied by a transient rise in sleepiness). But be careful. Longer nap times risk slipping into deeper sleep, with feelings of ‘grogginess’ when woken (a phenomenon called ‘sleep inertia’). And naps too close to bed-time can lead to a reduction in sleep pressure, and consequent problems falling asleep at night. Also keep in mind that naps don’t suite everyone; if your night-time sleep is sufficient, napping may be unnecessary.
4. Make your sleep competition fit. One way athletes can prepare for competition-related sleep disturbances is through minimising pre-competition sleep deprivation or “sleep banking”. It should be noted that it is physiologically impossible to literally ‘store’ or ‘bank, sleep. Nonetheless the concept usefully emphasises that minimising pre-competition sleep deprivation can dampen the effects of disturbed sleep. The evidence shows that athletes who go into a period of repeated sleep disruptions (through, say, multiple heats or ‘legs’) with a pre-existing sleep debt may underperform relative to those who have enjoyed more adequate pre-competition sleep.
Finally, and as a general rule, sleep is best protected by ‘regularity’ (don’t forget, our sleep evolved to harmonize with the rhythmic alternation of day and night). So wherever possible, adopt and maintain sleep routines. But we recognise that regular sleep routines are repeatedly challenged by the demands of elite sport. In the next post, we’ll consider sleep in the context of travelling.
About the authors
Professor Kevin Morgan is the Director of Clinical Sleep Research Unit, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University.
Luke Gupta is a Physiologist with the English Institute of Sport, Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre