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Sleep for athletes: are athletes a different breed?

Written by Greg Potter, PhD

Feb. 29, 2020

In case you missed them, parts one, two, and three of this series detail numerous strategies you may benefit from trying if your goal is to sleep better. Because so many of the NBT readers compete in physically gruelling events, this fourth and final blog of the series is all about sleep for athletes. In it, we’ll review some of the causes of sleep problems that are common among athletes, as well as what to do about them. To tie the blogs together and plug any holes that I’ve missed, Chris and I recorded two podcasts that you can tune into here and here.

How well do athletes sleep?

In short, not very: Many elite athletes take a long time to fall asleep, experience frequent awakenings during the night, feel that their sleep isn’t very restorative, and report daytime fatigue. In fact, a third to a half of these athletes have poor quality sleep, a proportion relatively similar to people of the same ages from the general population. 

This said, most elite athletes will do all-but anything to optimise their performance, so many of these people are experiencing sleep problems despite being meticulous about sleep hygiene. 

So, what are some of the factors that commonly disrupt sleep in athletes if left unchecked?

Factors that impair sleep in athletes

Work-related stress 

Many athletes are not well paid (if they are paid at all) and must balance their athletic lives with other jobs. As a result, some of these individuals work around the clock, the stress of which disposes them to insomnia. To cope with this stress, the strategies I shared in blogs two and three of this series should be useful.

Training 

Next, there is training. Training commonly disrupts sleep by way of its timing and/or its load. 

Training timing

If early or late training overlaps with your habitual sleep period (bearing in mind that it takes time to eat, get ready for training, travel to and from training, wind down from training, and so on), your sleep is likely to suffer. Ideally, you would adjust your schedule to avoid such overlap. However, if your training times can’t be changed then one option is to shift your sleep earlier or later, respectively. 

To shift your sleep earlier, increase your exposure to daylight within 2 hours of waking for the day ahead. If you can’t expose yourself to daylight, use a light therapy lamp that emits a light intensity of at least 10,000 lux, and use it for at least half an hour. In the evening, avoid exercise in the 4 hours or so before your planned bedtime, and systematically reduce your exposure to light 2 hours before your planned bedtime. If you’re outside at this time and the sun is up, wear sunglasses. If you’re indoors, dim the lights (or turn some lights off) and perhaps use blue-blocking glasses. Finally, to go to sleep earlier, it’s probably best to at least temporarily stop consuming any caffeine during this phase. If you do these things, you should be able to advance your sleep timing by at least 30 minutes each day.

To shift your sleep later, reduce your exposure to daylight within 2 hours of waking in the morning. If you’re outside and the sun is up, wear sunglasses. If you’re indoors, use minimal lighting and perhaps use blue-blocking glasses. In the evening, exercising 3 to 5 hours before your planned bedtime will help you delay your sleep. Systematically increase your exposure to light at this time too. If you do these things, you should be able to delay your sleep timing by at least 30 minutes each day. Note that regardless of whether you’re shifting your sleep earlier or later, you should move your diet timing in lockstep with your sleep timing.

Training load

Regarding training load, you’ve probably noticed that if you test the limits of your recovery your sleep soon deteriorates. Sleep problems are commonplace during overreaching and overtraining, and the problems generally subside once the balance between training load and ability to recover from training becomes more favourable. Addressing sleep difficulties during these periods entails modifying training loads (if possible) and being particularly fastidious about optimising recovery at these times by minimising non-training physical activity, avoiding undue stress, ensuring adequate dietary energy availability (some athletes may be especially prone to a relative energy deficiency at these times), and attending closely to good sleep hygiene.

Nutrition

Speaking of dietary energy availability, athletes in aesthetic sports and events in which strength and power relative to body mass are important to success put a premium on being lean and are therefore often susceptible to undereating. Unsurprisingly, eating disorders and their consequences tend to be more common in these athletes than the general population. Equally unsurprisingly, athletes in aesthetic sports are also especially prone to sleep problems, and sleep problems are generally slightly more prevalent in female athletes.

In these instances, it’s important to increase energy availability. Gradually and systematically increasing energy intake may help minimise undue fat gain in these athletes, but it sometimes makes sense to make larger and faster increments in calorie consumption. In the case of eating disorders, this process is best done under the supervision of a dietician or similarly qualified health professional.

Sleep in very heavy athletes

At the other end of the body mass spectrum, some athletes are very, very large people, and being so big can itself disrupt sleep. The heavier you are, the more likely you are to experience obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which the upper airway intermittently collapses during sleep, leading to temporary hypoxia and various negative health consequences. So, if you frequently get tired during the day, snore, and others have witnessed you stop breathing at night, you should seek help.

Sleep in contact sport athletes

Many athletes in contact sports such as American football, rugby, boxing, and MMA are not only very large but also prone to concussions. Concussions are often ruinous for sleep, and it’s probable that sleep disruption is one of the mechanisms by which these athletes are disposed to neurodegenerative diseases. Managing concussions is notoriously tricky, and while easier said than done, the onus has to be on being responsible and putting the athlete’s long-term health first.

Pain and sleep in athletes

To be the best they can be, athletes regularly test their capacity for physical discomfort. High training loads and injuries take their toll, and pain is rife in athletes. Left unchecked, poor sleep and pain can spiral in a vicious cycle in which poor sleep increases pain and reduces tolerance to painful stimuli, while in turn pain hampers sleep. Managing pain is key to maintaining healthy sleep in athletes, which highlights the critical importance of smart training. In addition, of the different strategies I’ve mentioned, meditation can be particularly helpful for coping with chronic pain.

Mindset and competition

Next, many athletes are perfectionists and experience high levels of anxiety about performance, especially around competitions, which may interfere with sleep. The strategies I discussed in the last blog should help with these ruminations.

Competition does bring unique challenges, however. First, some events take place very early or late, and if this is the case then athletes should heed the advice above regarding how to shift sleep timing. 

Travel and sleep

Competitions frequently entail travel, which can disrupt sleep in several ways. Sleeping in an unfamiliar environment routinely results in the “first-night effect”, a phenomenon in which we experience transient insomnia when sleeping in novel environments. This increased vigilance is thought to have evolutionary origins: you wouldn’t want to drop your guard for long in a place you’re not familiar with.

Then there is jetlag, a subject I’d bet you’re all too familiar with. It would take multiple blogs to comprehensively address the causes, consequences, and management of jetlag, so I’ll be very brief here. If you’re travelling across 3 or more time zones and plan to fully adjust to the new time zone, use the website jetlagrooster for guidance on how to optimise your exposure to light to overcome jetlag faster. At times of day when you are trying to avoid light exposure, wear sunglasses or blue-blocking glasses. Timely use of melatonin in conjunction with changes in your patterns of light exposure can additively shift the timing of your body’s clock. If you take melatonin, use conventional melatonin (not the timed-release stuff) at a dose of about 1 mg (this is a good product). 

Next, if you nap while in transit, use an eyemask and recline your seat as much as you can

Finally, your diet probably influences how quickly you get over jetlag. Unless fasting is contraindicated for you, transit is an ideal time to do an extended fast - plane food doesn’t tend to be stellar quality. Stick to water or non-caffeinated herbal teas at this time, and wash your hands regularly, for you will likely be exposed to an abundance of novel pathogens. Then, on your first full day in the new time zone, fully shift your meal timing to the new time zone.

Summary

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series of blogs, so I hope you benefit from applying some of the strategies I’ve shared. As I mentioned in the first blog though, you may still feel like you’re doing everything right and just not getting the results you’re after. I know I’ve had this feeling at times, and it sucks. Sometimes we all need some guidance from people who have experience helping people overcome health problems. 

The good news is that the NBT Elite Performance program can give you the support you need. The NBT team has helped more than 1,500 athletes overcome sleep problems that had not responded to other interventions. So, for a review of your history and more on how the NBT team can help you, schedule a free consultation with the NBT team by clicking this link

Sleep well!

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