Sleep plays an important part in every person’s life. In fact, all of the animals that we know of, and were able to test, require sleep. But for people that do physical work and for athletes, it is crucial! Of course, we all know that diet, hydration and training are of the utmost importance for the success of an athlete. However, sleeping habits can literally mean the difference between victory and defeat.
For an athlete, losing focus is not an option. Because if you lose focus, the opponent gets the advantage. It does not matter which sport you compete in. Whether you are playing a ball game, racing around a track or lifting weights. Staying focussed on the competition is all important.
Likewise, motivation is an essential part of any athlete’s life. One has to stay motivated to reach the goal (sometimes literally). Moreover, when things go wrong with your game, you quickly get demotivated. Especially if you don’t know the cause for the error.
Stress goes hand in hand with focus and motivation. There is always an element of stress in any competition. And a little bit of stress is good. But if your stress levels start spiralling out of control it is not good. Not good at all!
When we enter deep sleep (the sleep stage prior to REM sleep) our bodies release growth hormone. A hormone that is responsible for muscle recovery. So you can see that sleeping the recommended amount of hours per night can enhance an athlete’s muscle recovery.
Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) is the stage of sleep where our brains sort through what we’ve learnt during the day. In other words, athletes need REM sleep to consolidate the techniques that they learnt during the day.
A lack of sleep will have negative effects on an athlete’s performance. It can cause:
In a 2012 publication in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3307962/), researchers proved that only one night’s sleep deprivation greatly impaired reaction time in 18 athletes. Another Harvard Medical School study found that missing one night of sleep can retard reaction time in athletes by up to 300 per cent. For almost all sports disciplines, reaction time is of utmost importance. How will you react when your opponent passes the ball or just keeps on running. When an obstacle comes across the single-track you are riding, how will you react? If you had enough sleep, you will tackle the opponent or evade the obstacle. However, if you didn’t get enough zzz’s you might end up conceding a try or getting a flatty…
The online journal, sports (https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/7/1/1/htm), published some interesting research at the end of last year. Researchers monitored the quality and quantity of eight elite Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters as they were preparing for a tournament. In the end, the study showed that those athletes who had consistent sleeping habits suffered fewer injuries.
When we sleep, our bodies produce T-cells. Or we can call them antibodies if you feel more comfortable with that term. These are the cells that fight disease, infection and inflammation in our bodies. Scientists are not 100 per cent sure how sleep and the production of antibodies correlate. But in a 2011 study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/) medical workers found that the human body produced more antibodies to counter an experimental hepatitis A vaccine in patients that slept through the night after the vaccination, than in those patients that didn’t sleep. So quite obviously, more sleep means a better immune system!
Unfortunately, it seems that elite athletes often suffer from sleep deprivation. Moreover, this lack of sleep can mean anything from losing the game to losing their jobs! I can give you a long list of studies to support this statement, but you probably won’t read them anyway. So I will break it down for you and briefly discuss a couple of cases:
So the list goes on and on! And if you are anything like me, you might be wondering how anyone ever becomes an elite athlete? If the odds are stacked against them and they are guaranteed to lose out on sleep, how do they do it?
Well, let me tell you, some of them get creative! Check out the weird and wonderful sleeping habits of these world-class athletes!
Not all world-class athletes have the same regard for sleep. Frankly, some of them show a flagrant disregard for the necessity that us mere mortals call sleep. However, there are others that respect sleep and see it as a part of their training schedule. Here are some interesting sleeping habits practised by the best of the best.
Four-time Tour de France winner, Chris Froome once went an entire week without getting scheduled or regular sleep. He wanted to train more, so he would go on six-hour training rides, sleep a bit and then go out again for six hours. Froome told Shortlist magazine that he convinced himself that training only once per day wasn’t cutting it. But of course, this workout regime didn’t work.
“I only lasted four or five days, then I crashed and burned…” – Chris Froom, Shortlist magazine
After that week, Froome realised that sleep was important after all. So now he tries to get in bed early during his training periods, which is most of the time.
Phelps won Olympic gold medals in his swimming career. That is the most Olympic gold medals anyone has ever won, in any discipline. Needless to say, he is an amazing athlete! And his sleeping habits are pretty amazing too. To get himself used to operate in low oxygen environments, Phelps slept in a high-altitude sleeping chamber while preparing for competitions.
What is the use of that? Well, as height above sea level increases, the amount of oxygen we are able to breathe in decreases. This means that at higher altitudes, we inhale less oxygen with each breath. So your body has to work harder to distribute the oxygen to where it needs to be. When Phelps simulated sleeping at high altitudes, he forced his body to get used to functioning with low levels of oxygen. And if you think about it, what better way to condition your body for swimming, where you go without oxygen for extended periods of time!?
Before the 2012 Olympic Games, Phelps slept at an artificially induced 2800m above sea level. And it clearly paid off.
The most highly decorated British Olympiad, Sir Chris Hoy has won six Olympic gold medals for cycling. Hoy is has a personal sleep coach, Nick Littlehales, who is also Christiano Ronaldo’s sleep coach. But more on that later. Sir Chris Hoy has made sleep such a priority that he had Littlehales design a mattress specifically for him. The mattress was made so as to fit his body perfectly.
What’s more, he takes the mattress with him wherever he goes! He even takes it along when he competes in the Tour de France and prefers it above five-star hotel beds.
Whether you are a fan of this fiery footballer or not, you have to admit that he brings a passion to the game. And just like his passion for soccer, he has a passion to enhance his own performance.
Real Madrid contracted Nick Littlehales to help the entire squad to set their sleep schedule in order. The team takes a siesta at 1 pm every day, isn’t that a treat!? But Ronaldo went ahead and got Littlehales to tailor him a personalised sleep pattern. Ronaldo sleeps for five periods of 90 minutes throughout a 24 hour day. On top of that, he switches off his TV, phone, tablet etc. an hour and a half before bedtime.
Great, so now you know that some of the best athletes in the world make sleep a priority. Are you willing to do the same? If so, here are a couple of tips to help you on your way to becoming a world-class sleeper!
Good night to all you sports lovers out there! And remember, sleep is just as important a part of becoming the best athlete that you can be as the workouts you do and the food you eat.