How World Leading Athletes Sleep:

World leading athletes are well aware of the importance of sleep as it relates to high performance. Most of us would agree that elite athletes are required to consistently perform in very demanding environments. But that’s true for just about all of us who are interested in “high performance” in life — especially for those of us who are pursuing a life of deep meaning and authenticity.

For best-in-the-world athletes, the difference winning and loosing, or making a team and not being selected, can be determined by fractions of a second. Athletes tend to easily understand the link between quality sleep and optimal performance — and most agree that quality sleep is fundamental to consistently performing at a very high level.

If quality sleep is considered “fundamental” to high performance — how are you doing in this department? After all, all of us are performing in some aspect of our lives.

In a recent conversation I had with Fatigue Science founder, Pat Byrne (he and his company changed the game for professional sports franchises when it comes to sleep science), was very clear about the importance of sleep and performance. He noted the findings that even our grandmother told us: 7–8 hours of sleep is what’s best, that a quiet and dark room are ideal conditions. But he also highlights how pliable our brains are to be able to adjust, but that those adjustments but be more for survival than optimization. He noted that when we are sleep restricted, our brain begins to create a “new normal” of feeling rested, but that new normal is sub-optimal when it comes to focus and speed of decision making (more on that conversation with Pat Byrne).

Researcher Cheri Mah, while at Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory studied the effects of sleep and athletic performance. Mah noted that sleep is a “significant factor in achieving peak athletic performance.” Mah continued that many athletes accumulate a large sleep debt by not obtaining their required nightly sleep, which can have negative effects on cognitive functioning, mood, and reaction time. Not surprisingly though, Mah’s suggested that the “negative effects can be minimized or eliminated by prioritizing sleep in general and, more specifically, obtaining extra sleep to reduce one’s sleep debt.”

Sounds pretty simple, right? If you’re noticing that you’re just a bit less sharp (mentally) and your mood and reaction time are off, then sleep debt could be the culprit. In which, getting more sleep could be a key to unlock increased performance in your life (sport). Right? It’s not that simple though — a recent study by Cohen, et al. (2010) found that the residual effects of chronic sleep loss are not made-up with a good night of “extra” sleep, especially for performances that occurred the following evening. In other words, after we get some good quality sleep (after the night of sleep loss), we feel fresh during that day, but by the next evening, we are still “off.” And if the sleep-debt cycle repeats itself, we’re likely to really have subsequent performance challenges.

So what does this all mean to you?

We’re pretty clear that performance deteriorates with a lack of sleep. In fact, according to those who study the potential life-and-death effects of sleep and human performance, the US military’s MITRE corporation (Williams et al., 2008) noted that “the most immediate human performance factor in military effectiveness is degradation of performance under stressful conditions, particularly sleep deprivation.”

We just know that it’s important. It’s not rocket science. That being said, here are a few very simple sleep strategies that elite athletes and coaches use to improve performance in sport and for life:

1) Allow for pre-sleep readiness. Most great athletes talk about the advantages that come with pre-performance routines — the activities that help prepare your mind and body to perform optimally. Create a pre-sleep routine where you allow yourself to be prepared for sleep. It’s so much tougher to fall asleep when you head hits the pillow and your still mentally wide-awake. Ease into the sleep process.

2) Create a cave-like atmosphere by making it dark and a temperature around 68°. According to Fatigue Science Founder, Pat Byrne “if you can see your hand a foot away from your face at night, it’s not dark enough for quality sleep.”

3) Mimic sundown by dimming lights at night

4) Decrease fluids leading up to bedtime (4 hrs prior to sleep)

5) Clear your mind. Keep a small “to-do” journal next to your bed. In the event that, as soon as you lay down, your mind “turns-on” with “to-do’s”, jot ’em down — clear your mind. It’s amazing how simple this is, and how well it works.

6) Be consistent with your sleep patterns. The best-in-the-world performers can consistently perform at a high level. The key here is consistency. Explore the number of hours of sleep that help you perform optimally. Build in enough time in your day (and evening) to ensure enough time to ease into your sleep preparation mode, as well as, to get your ideal hours of sleep. Be consistent. Be diligent.

7) Account for jet-lag. As a rule, traveling east has more pronounced and lasting jet-lag effects. Youth and well-conditioned people have less negative effects than older, sedentary adults. Air travel is also known to dehydrate the body (which can also impact sleep). Build in hydration and jet-lag recovery strategies when travel is likely to impact the quality of your sleep.

There are actually many additional “tips” on how to improve sleep (see articles on “sleep hygiene” … and it’s important to know the difference between poor sleep “habits” and a more serious sleep disorder (see articles on “sleep disorders”). The strategies that we recommend require a particular amount of discipline to generate your desired outcome of improved sleep and subsequent improved performance. Best success on your journey.

Michael Gervais, Ph.D. //