At the highest levels of professional sport and athletics, tiny incremental advantages over your opponent can determine the difference between glory, or tremendous failure.
In the hyper-competitive world of elite sport, natural talent is no longer enough to guarantee success. Science now plays an integral part of the winning formula, employing techniques from psychology to biochemistry, kinetics and advanced nutrition to name a few.
But when national pride, or millions in prize money are at stake, sometimes the temptation to take risks outweighs the benefit of playing by the rules.
Not long ago, the entire Russian athletic team was banned from international competition because of systemic corruption involving performing-enhancing drugs. Similarly, in 2012, we witnessed the epic downfall of seven-times Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong. Once an icon to millions, Armstrong is now regarded as one of the sport’s biggest cheats.
But what if there was another way to get an edge in the winning stakes. A perfectly-legal, under-used performance enhancing substance. Sounds too good to be true?
Table of Contents
The third pillar
For years it’s been drilled into our collective psyche that physical health rests on two foundations, good nutrition and adequate exercise. But in the 21st century, science and medicine is increasingly focusing on the third pillar of health – sleep.
Some of the benefits of healthy sleep are obvious; better energy levels, lack of fatigue, increased endurance. Others are not so obvious, such as way sleep is involved in repairing cell damage, or regulating our emotions.
So unsurprisingly, the sports world has embraced the science of sleep as a new untapped goldmine of performance enhancing benefits. From NBA, NHL and baseball in the States, to soccer, athletics, boxing and cycling on the international stage, specialist sleep consultants are being paid to advise and coach elite athletes on the best ways to sleep their way to success. Here are a few of their best tips.
1: Get more sleep than normal
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults, on average need between 7 and 9 hours sleep each night. Whilst all of us differ slightly, elite sportsmen and women may need even more than this. A high volume of training may require longer periods of rest and recovery. Cheri Mah, sleep researcher and advisor to the NBA, NFL and NHL, recommends between 8 and 10 hours sleep each night for elite athletes. Just like children whose growth rates are quicker than adults, elite athletes often need the extra hours to build and repair cells that become damaged during training. Bear in mind however that if you don’t have the intense training schedule of a pro-sports player, too much sleep might actually be harmful to your health.
2: Turn out the lights
It’s a cliche, but bedrooms should only be about two things, sleep and sex. Nick Littlehales, a sleep coach to elite sports stars like footballer Ronaldo is often taken aback by the lavish sleeping environments of millionaire sports players. “You might walk into a player’s bedroom and the TV comes out of the bottom of the bed, there is a smart device dock, laptops on the bed, and standby lights everywhere.” Too much light at night disrupt the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you drowsy in readiness for bed. The type of blue light emitted from smartphones, laptops and tablets is particularly harmful towards sleep.
3: Go easy on the Red Bull
Global sales of energy drinks were worth a staggering $49 billion in 2014. Brands like Red Bull and Monster promote their products as part of an active lifestyle, so they’re commonly used as a pick-me-up before a work out, or late in the day when energy levels are flagging. But energy drinks and coffee stay have a half-life of up to 6 hours -and the effects can still be felt up to 14 hours later. Sports medicine specialist David Geier MD recommends that athletes should start cutting back on caffeine and stimulants 2-3 days before a competition to avoid affecting their sleep.
4: Sleep in terms of cycles, not hours
A proper night’s sleep will consist of several stages or cycles. When you first nod off, you enter Stage 1, light sleep. This transitions into Stage 2, deep sleep, followed by Stage 3/4 , also know as slow -wave sleep. Finally you enter REM (rapid eye movement), where dreams occurs. This whole process takes around 90 minutes, and is known as a full sleep cycle. An optimum night’s sleep consists of 4-6 complete sleep cycles. But often what happens is that our alarm goes off midday way through sleep cycle. When our sleep cycle is interrupted, it can cause sleep inertia, the feeling of grogginess that can happen even if you’ve had an adequate number of hours sleep. To combat this problem, sleep coach Nick Littlehales recommends fixing your sleep time in terms of cycles, instead of hours. So if you can’t escape a late night, rather than setting your alarm later in the morning, you can miss one sleep cycle, and make up later in the day with a strategic nap
5: Utilize the memory-enhancing effects of sleep
Research in recent years has shown that sleep, particularly REM plays an active role in memory consolidation and learning. Countless studies have shown that losing out on REM sleep causes significant performance losses in memory-related tasks. Harvard professor and sports consultant Dr. Charles Czeisler says elite athletes can use this to their advantage. As an advisor to the NBA and NHL Czeisler recognizes the importance of not only physical prowess, but also mental agility. “You notice some teams seem to learn the moves of the other team, so they can actually counter their offense more effectively in later games,” he explains. “So that team that might’ve lost the first few games starts winning.”
6: Get Napping
Naps are not just for babies and old people. They’re a reliable strategy for boosting performance and alertness for a few hours. Cheri Mah recommends pre-game naps for the professional sports players she coaches. The timing of your nap is crucial. A short 20-30 power-nap is good for an immediate and quick boost in energy. Longer naps, although beneficial run the risk of sleep inertia is you mistakenly wake in deep sleep. If you’re seriously sleep deprived you may want to go all guns blazing and aim for a 90-minute nap, incorporating a full sleep cycle.
So, whoever said sleep was a waste of time, clearly didn’t know what they were talking about. Sleep science is at the frontier of a new wave of research in how to push the envelope of athletic ability and human performance.