All athletes strive to continuously improve their performance. Whether it be Usain Bolt trying to shave a tenth of a second off his 100m record, Rory McIlroy attempting to drive that extra 10 yards, or Lewis Hamilton being able to react that split second quicker than the driver behind him.
Sports scientists are now regularly used by top athletes and teams to help their clients achieve even the slightest advantage over their competitors. In this way, sleep coaches such as Nick Littlehales have risen to prominence in the backroom staff of major sports teams and top level athletes over the last 20 years, providing consultations to find the ideal sleep environment and patterns for their clients.
In an interview with BBC Sport, Littlehales explained the issues of some high profile football players that he had worked with, including an individual consultation role helping Gareth Bale adjust to moving to Real Madrid whilst coping with “Morning Phobia” and having a young child.
He also spoke of a high profile Manchester City star who had trouble sleeping after European evening matches, and how he helped him to create a sleep schedule that worked around training and games.
In cases like these, professional sleep coaches often like to create a ‘Sleep Profile’, unique to the client’s needs and problems. This profile covers almost every aspect of the athlete’s life, including confidence, alertness, decision making, patience, awareness, stamina and physical fitness, allowing them to create the ideal sleep environment and schedule for the individual to increase or maximise their athletic performance.
With increasing awareness about the importance of sleep in sport, many elite athletes are taking notice. Usain Bolt, Lebron James, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams are all reported to achieve an average of 10 hours sleep per day, allowing them to repair, rest and even improve certain skills whilst asleep.
Chris Fensom and Daren Headley
We caught up with recently crowned Battle Arena British Light Heavyweight champion Chris Fensom and his Strength and Conditioning coach, Daren Headley from the podcast Slaphead and Giraffe.
Daren explained “Sleep is one of the most vital but underestimated ingredients in getting your body (and mind) in the shape you want to be in.
When we work out, we are literally breaking down our muscle fibres. They rebuild, stronger, mostly while we are sleeping. Most of us need 7-8 hours of real sleep to enable this but getting less than this can also cause other issues. When we are tired we also crave ‘quick fix food’ – often sugar based carbs. This leads to a crash as well as usually having few useful nutrients our body requires.
We also need sleep to get ourselves into the mindset we need to be in to workout. Most people have tried to workout after a big night out. it’s not ideal!
In fact, world famous nutritionist and peak performance coach Mike Dolce (twice voted MMA coach of the year) put sleep as one of the top five secrets to get the body you want!”
Chris also offered us 3 tips for how he maximises his sleep efficiency whilst training:
- Stay hydrated before sleep and avoid alcohol – I won’t drink alcohol in the last few weeks running up to a fight. Not because of the effect, but because of the effect on my sleep as you can get dehydrated.
- Keep your bedroom as dark as possible – I don’t just have blackout blinds, but I have Velcro round the window frame which a blackout sheet goes over so there’s not even a gap round the sides. I also have electro tape over the red light on the TV, my wife gets really irritated with me!
- Its gotta be a great mattress! I’m 6’5, I need a lot of space, and I need a comfy mattress: not too soft or too firm, but you want someone who has put a lot of research in.
Fitness and lifestyle blogger Em Sheldon
We also spoke to fitness and lifestyle blogger Em Sheldon from Em Talks to get her thoughts on the importance of sleep for training and athletic performance.
“Being someone who loves exercise, it’s important that I get enough sleep so that I can exert enough energy into my workouts. I work out at least five times a week so because I am using more energy, I need more rest. There’s no point working out if you haven’t had enough sleep because you’ll actually cause more harm than good eventually and not have enough energy to work out in the first place, or, you’ll eventually burn out your body from over-working and ‘burning the candles at both end’.
There are many studies that suggest people need around 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, but most agree that athletes may need more as they’re pushing their body more in training, so need more time to recover. I know personally, I get around 6 hours sleep a night which just isn’t enough for anyone, let alone someone who works out a lot.
Many studies have been done relating to sport and sleep. For example, for the journal Sleep, the Stanford University basketball team were tracked and when players added an average of 2 more hours sleep a night, their speed was increased by 5% and their throws were 9% more accurate. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine also found that American Football players’ sprint times improved after having more sleep for seven to eight weeks.
I guess more sleep just makes you feel more energised, less sluggish and ready to take on the day and it’s great that there are many studies to back this up.
The Sleep Foundation themselves explain the importance of sleep and say “diet and exercise are critical components of healthy lifestyles, it’s also important to remember that sleep is inherently linked with how we eat (and how much), how we exercise (and whether or not we lose weight), and how we function on a daily basis. Getting the proper amount of sleep each night is necessary to face the world with your best foot forward. Sleep will help you on the road to good fitness, good eating and good health”.
Essentially, sleep really is crucial, not just for performing well in sport but also, for performing well in every day life. I know I’m going to try and get at least 8 hours tonight!”