Sleeping woman

Sleep to Win: Part 1- Sleep and Sport

This blog continues the ‘Top 10 sleep principles’ focusing on competition and sleep.

Introduction to the Sleep to Win Series

In this guest blog series we hear from experts Kevin Morgan and Luke Gupta – on the vital component of performance – Sleep!
This introductory blog will look at the background to sleep and why it is so important. In later blogs they’ll share their ‘Top 10 sleep principles’ covering; training; travelling; competition.
Evidence-based sleep management to support your performance and wellbeing

About Sleep and Sport

Sleep science has only recently joined the more ‘traditional’ sports disciplines (like physiology, psychology and biomechanics) in developing a research agenda aimed at helping elite athletes achieve, and consistently perform at their best. As a result, while most coaches and athletes acknowledge the importance of sleep to performance and wellbeing, there are still no widely accepted – or widely practiced – principles of sleep management for elite sport. Interestingly, where sleep advice is offered to athletes, it is often ‘packaged’ in much the same way as, for example, information on sports nutrition, with clear-cut indications of the ‘kind’ of sleep athletes need. This not to suggest that prescriptive advice on diet and fluid intake isn’t extremely valuable. Our point, here, is that this style of advice isn’t necessarily appropriate for sleep because, in many respects, sleep is rather special.

Why is sleep so special?

Suppose the evidence suggests that an athlete would benefit from a particular dietary supplement or a change to their training volume. Achieving these benefits depends mainly on athlete adherence – in other words, it’s under their control. But sleep is different; it’s not under our direct control. So, if the evidence suggests that a particular duration of continuous deep sleep is optimal for recovery – we must also appreciate that getting to sleep, staying asleep, and the structure of our sleep are not acts of will. As a result sleep cannot be prescribed; it can only be ‘recommended’ or ‘encouraged’. In fact trying to make sleep an act of will (deploying what is called “sleep effort”) can be counterproductive. Which brings us to another special feature of sleep. In general, worrying about – say – your fluid balance is unlikely, in itself, to make you dehydrated. But worrying about sleep can result in fatigue, since worrying in itself can delay sleep onset, which shortens sleep and consequently reduces its restorative quality. Any practical advice on how athletes should think about, and manage their sleep should not only recognise these points, it should address them.
With this in mind, we have designed these posts to both improve your understanding of sleep in general, and to provide a brief evidence-based guide to sleep management in elite sport. Here, we set the context.

What does sleep do for sport?

Regular adequate sleep helps to maintain the rhythm of your body clock, keeps you alert during the day, and supports the physiological and cognitive demands of training, recovery and competition. There is no ‘one size fits all’ quantity of sleep that should be recommended, though most athletes performing at the elite level will know how much sleep is best for them (and, for adults, it’s safe to assume that it will be at least 7 hours per night). In the context of otherwise satisfactory sleep, one or two nights of disturbed or poor quality sleep are unlikely to affect muscle function, endurance or competitive performance. Performance and wellbeing can, however, be affected by persistently inadequate sleep which increases fatigue and impacts motivation (especially when performance is demanded in the evening). Fatigue can also lead to decrements in concentration, memory, and decision-making.
Persistent sleep disturbance can also create anxieties about performance, undermining an athlete’s confidence, and helping to create a vicious cycle, since anxiety about sleep and performance will make getting to sleep more difficult, which in turn creates anxiety about sleep and performance… and so on. Learning when sleep is vulnerable, and how to cope with sleep challenges, should be high on athlete and coaching agendas.
Sleep to Win

What does sport do to sleep?

In elite sport, sleep quality, continuity and duration are all influenced by the demands of training schedules, the logistical demands of national and international travel, and the psychological demands of competing. One way or another, these challenges – singly or in combination – can impact the three processes which most control sleep: homeostasis (most easily recognised as the increasing ‘pressure’ to fall asleep as the time since we last slept increases); the circadian rhythm (sleep ‘pressure’ is also influenced by, and is best synchronised with, the time of day – so that we feel sleepiest at bedtime); and psychological processes (even sleepy people will struggle to fall asleep if their mind is active).

Managing your sleep

We believe that sleep advice is best delivered as a set of principles rather than a list of rules. Athletes will show individual differences in typical sleep durations, in sleep resilience (some people simply have more robust sleep than others), and chronotype (e.g. ‘morning types’ v ‘evening types’). These differences work against specific ‘one size fits all’ recommendations. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t usefully construct your own rules. In subsequent posts we will cover our ‘Top 10 sleep principles’ for athletes and coaches wishing to better manage sleep during Training, Travelling and Competitions. And importantly, we’ll emphasise what you can influence?

Check out the rest of our Sleep to Win Series


Stay Tuned!

About the authors

Contact Kevin on
Luke Gupta is a Physiologist with the English Institute of Sport, Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, follow him @lukegup86

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