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Sleep – The Ultimate Performance Enhancer

Mar 26, 2021

Dr Sarah Gilchrist is a professional sports performance consultant who has worked in senior technical roles with British Rowing and supported Team GB and Paralympic GB athletes through her leadership work at the English Institute of Sport. Her portfolio of work includes sleep and performance expertise, people development and quality assurance processes. She also currently sits on the charity’s Sleep Council Advisory Board. 

Sleep and elite sport. It’s a two-way relationship.

That is, they affect each other, specifically within the areas of training, travel and competition and the extent to which depends very much on the individual athlete.

Whether it be the anxieties of competition, a heavy training phase, or long-haul travel to a competition, such as the pending Tokyo 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an elite athlete’s sleep can potentially be affected. The extent to which training, competition or travel can affect an athlete can be linked to a trait known as ‘sleep reactivity’. Basically, this means an individual athlete may react to periods of stress through exhibiting poor sleep – either difficulty in falling and/or staying asleep to varying degrees.

The good news is sleep management strategies for elite athletes are now much more focused than ever before, and the recognition of sleep health as a fundamental impact factor on areas to optimise performance can be a game-changer in elite sport programmes.

How do elite athletes get a good night’s sleep?

Transpose the findings from sleep and elite athletic performance to the general population and nothing changes in so much as physical activity and sleep also have a reciprocal relationship. Whilst the extremes of elite athlete training are not comparable to the general population – e.g. training six hours a day, six days a week – some of the general principles behind sleep and elite sport remain the same for physical activity.

Like in elite sport, physical activity can help boost sleep in that is improves our sleep quality (how deeply we sleep) and can help to prolong our sleep time too. If we are experiencing low moods and increased daytime sleepiness through a lack of sleep, then physical activity can help on both counts; improve our sleep and give us a boost in terms of lifting mood.

Certainly, having good sleep and regular physical activity means improved mental health (e.g. cognitive function and emotional stability), alongside the well documented physical benefits of physical activity, including improved immune function, reduction in body mass, improvements in cardiovascular health and bone strength.

How important is routine to getting a good night’s sleep?

Most notably, the benefits of physical activity and sleep are linked to the importance of establishing a daily routine or rhythm (circadian rhythm). This is important for maintaining regular balance and function within the body.

Typically, our regular 24 hour rhythm of sleep and wake fall into our daily routine of life events, such as work or school, and through this routine we have natural time cues that help us maintain the body’s balance in terms of where it’s at any given point in the day, like when we’re hungry or tired. However, our body’s natural (circadian) rhythm can become disrupted through a number of ways, either external factors, such as stress, shift work or travel, or a sleep disorder. When daily life gets interrupted, our regular time cues become offset and it is easy to lose the routine, with sleep patterns often paying the price.

Long term, this can be hard to break free from and has been particularly prevalent with the Covid-19 pandemic, where our daily time cues have potentially been askew with the lack of daily commute and working from home, along with the other challenges that lockdown has brought. In short, a regular get-up time, bedtime and daytime cues, like physical activity sessions, all help the body to maintain its natural rhythm and benefit the smooth transition to night-time sleep.

So, your daily walk round the park helps in seeking the much-needed daylight, gets your blood pumping and promotes deeper and longer sleep. It’s a win all round for physical wellbeing!

Like elite athletes, the timing of physical activity is also key in relation to sleep. Exercise too close to bedtime and you may experience difficulties in getting to sleep, not least from the increased core body temperature and adrenaline caused by your late evening jog round the block. Try to leave approximately two hours between finishing your chosen activity and bedtime, and don’t forget to include time for eating too.

Is napping good for helping me get enough sleep?

Another sleep advantage regularly adopted by elite athletes is a sleep extension strategy, such as napping, and this can also help daily life for us normal people.

Naps are particularly effective as, in general, they reduce the ‘pressure’ to sleep. This ‘pressure’ is a biological drive that we experience when our bodies are attempting to fall asleep. It naturally manifests at night, but it can also occur during the day, usually in the afternoon when we experience the ‘nodding donkey’ syndrome post lunch.

Typically, naps fall into three categories; prophylactic (in anticipation of sleep loss), compensatory (in response to sleep loss), or appetitive (on demand) where you simply enjoy a nap and proactively add it into your day for convenience or enjoyment (Gupta et al, 2020). So, not all naps need to be reactive to poor sleep and the latter, in particular, can be associated with improved night-time sleep. Naps can also help you achieve more in a day – they’re simple to do if you have the opportunity, free and don’t take long to achieve (20-30 minutes is ideal).

If you don’t enjoy a nap, then fear not, don’t force it and recognise that some downtime can be equally beneficial as your body has an opportunity to pause during the day and reset ahead of further activities before night-time.

Elite sport may bring challenges to athlete sleep in the same way daily life may bring challenges to the general public’s sleep health. Having a good strategy to help you achieve optimal sleep health on a regular basis means you shouldn’t suffer the ill effects of poor sleep too often.

Learn more about Dr Gilchrist’s work –