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Sleep to Win: Part 4 – Sleep and Competition

This blog continues the ‘Top 10 sleep principles’ focusing on competition and sleep.
Having made it to a competition, you really don’t want sleep to get in the way of performance. But here, sleep is especially challenged, since you have may have to cope with being away from home and being under pressure and fitting into the schedules imposed by event organisers. In our final Top 10 principles of good sleep management, we focus on sleep during competitions. If you are competing at an elite level, you may already have developed effective personal strategies which work for you. If that’s the case, take from the points below what you feel might help – and leave the rest. But whatever your personal sleep needs, we would again stress that all the points here are based on research evidence.
7. Anticipate sleep disruption – and put it into perspective. As already mentioned, the demands of training, the need to travel, and the stress of competition will impact sleep in elite sport. Since the majority of athletes will experience some sleep disturbance in the lead-up to competition, this can be considered common, and therefore normal. As a result, athletes are able to anticipate these disturbances and prepare for them and respond accordingly. The point is how? An important principle to begin with is also a psychological balancing act: don’t underestimate the importance of sleep, but don’t overestimate the impact of acute sleep disruption. Regarding the latter point, it’s worth emphasising a couple of interesting research findings. First, a single night of total sleep deprivation does not necessarily impact power performance the next morning, with studies showing sprinters and weightlifters performing at peak despite sleep loss. And second, while sleep disturbance on the nights preceding competitions is common, there is no compelling evidence that the degree of such disturbance is directly related to next-day competitive performance.
Sleep To Win
8. Be aware of sleep hygiene. In everyday life there are simple things athletes can do which can promote sleep, and equally simple thing athletes can do which might disturb sleep. In and of itself, sleep hygiene practices are unlikely to ‘fix’ sleep problems; but they can support a regime of sleep management and help stop things getting worse. Typical sleep hygiene advice includes the following points.
  • When possible, try to keep a consistent bed and wake-up time.
  • Keep your bedroom calm, cool and comfortable
  • Try and keep your bedroom mainly for sleeping
  • Minimise the use of electronic devices 1 h before bed time
  • Outside of competition or late evening training, avoid fluids and heavy meals 2 h before bed time
9. Recognise and manage pre-sleep arousal. Most of the factors we traditionally identify as the ‘causes’ of being unable to fall asleep (anxiety, ‘racing minds’, worry, discomfort, pain, or simply ‘can’t shut down’) result in the same final common process: ‘cognitive arousal’. As already mentioned, this process, characterised by sustained mental activity, can be part of a vicious circle: events which produce arousal keep us awake; being awake makes us worry about the consequences of sleep loss; and this worry, in turn, leads to greater arousal… and so on. For athletes, sleep is particularly vulnerable during periods of competition, with feelings of anxiety and apprehension reported as the commonest reasons for disturbed sleep on nights prior to major competitions. But arousal can be managed. Each of the strategies listed below has been shown to be effective in managing pre-sleep arousal and reducing the time taken to fall asleep.
  • Put pre-competition sleep disturbances into context (re-read point 4 above)
  • Schedule a wind down period of at least 30 minutes before attempting to sleep (no matter how late it is). Go through your usual pre-sleep rituals. This really does help to calm things down.
  • Aim to be as sleepy as possible before going to bed – sleepiness serves as a counter-balance to arousal. It follows from this that going to bed earlier than needed due to a high emphasis on the importance of ‘a good night’s sleep’ can actually kick start an unhelpful spiral of events since, in the absence of ‘sleep pressure’, you’re likely to stay awake longer and allow more time for worry.
  • Never “try” to fall asleep; it doesn’t work. All we can do is create circumstances which make sleep more likely.
  • If you are prone to thinking and worrying in bed, schedule a regular period each day (say, 30 minutes) to focus on your concerns. Do this constructively; write down your worries so that they become clear, and make a note of possible responses or solutions. But at the end of your scheduled time, stop. Then, if any of these issues arise in your mind when you’re in bed, you can tell yourself that things are in hand and that any worrying can be postponed until your next scheduled period. In behavioural sleep medicine, this successful strategy is called creating a “worry buffer”.
  • If you really can’t stop a train of thought which is keeping you awake, try a thought blocking strategy called “articulatory suppression”. In your mind repeat a neutral word like “the” at irregular intervals. Irregularity is important, here; regular repetitions slip onto the mental ‘back burner’ allow you to worry ‘up front’. But irregular repetitions block out everything – try it!
  • Finally, relaxation procedures like Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) create feelings of bodily calm and have a good track record in reducing pre-sleep arousal levels. PMR has the advantage of being an easy to learn ‘musculoskeletal’ strategy, which may suit many athletes. If getting to sleep is a recurring challenge, consider learning one of these techniques.
Sleep To Win
10. Be careful with caffeine. Caffeine is a widely consumed by athletes, particular around periods of competition due to its favourable effects on performance. However, the effects of caffeine can also disturb sleep when consumption is too close to bedtime, particularly in those who are reactive sleepers. Caffeine blocks the activity of adenosine, a substance which accumulates in the brain during wakefulness and eventually promotes sleepiness. The stimulating effects of a single dose of caffeine can last for up to 4-6 hours, which means that many people fall asleep with at least some caffeine in their system. Larger amounts of caffeine, however, can lead to problems in falling asleep and can even make sleep more restless. It’s worth emphasising that, in addition to caffeine tablets, ‘energy’ drinks and coffee, there is a significant amount of caffeine in tea, chocolate, cocoa, and many ‘cola’ drinks. So, outside of competitions, be careful. During competition, however, optimal performance is a priority and therefore, sometimes, having large amounts of caffeine in your system is inevitable, particularly when competing in the evening. As a result, going to bed later in these instances (although this may seem counterintuitive) will allow for the arousal induced by caffeine consumption (and the impact of evening physical exertion) to dissipate, increasing the likelihood of a more restful night’s sleep.
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

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