Ask any Olympian and we’re certain that they’ll tell you that aside from an intense training schedule and a meticulously planned diet, the one other secret to their preparation is to sleep well. This shouldn’t come as any surprise since sleep is one of the three pillars of health – alongside exercise and nutrition.
Now while you can’t just sleep your way to an Olympic medal, several studies have shown that across several sports, such as tennis, basketball and swimming, athletes who achieve healthier sleep will have greater strength, accuracy, speed and reaction times than those that do not.1-3
In the Olympics, where every decision or millisecond counts, how well you sleep can make or break your performance. It’s no wonder then that sleep has been a huge area of focus for athletes in recent years notes Carmel Harrington, a sleep expert for ResMed.
“Elite sports coaches and managers are beginning to recognise the importance of sleep, with some employing sleep experts to help professional athletes and sporting teams,” she says.
Olympian or not, you should already know that getting 7–9 hours of sleep a night is essential to keeping your mind and body in good shape. Some studies even show that sleep quality can be the biggest predictor of whether you get injured or not.4-5 Just as athletes in training need to consume more calories to fuel themselves, they need more sleep to allow their body to repair itself and build muscle.
“During sleep, and specifically deep sleep, the body secretes growth hormone which allows for the building, repairing and restoration of muscle, making us ready and able to meet the physical challenges of the wakeful hours,” Harrington explains.
The best Olympians know all this. Legendary sprinter and eight-time gold medallist Usain Bolt himself has been quoted as saying, "Sleep is extremely important to me – I need to rest and recover in order for the training I do to be absorbed by my body.”
With media obligations, drugs test and travel – not to mention the pressure of representing your country on the world’s greatest sporting stage – sleeping during the Olympics can be challenging. And if it wasn’t already hard enough, this year’s Olympic swimmers have also had to adjust to the scheduling whims of leading American television networks.
In prior Olympics, swimmers have typically been able to sleep between events. This year, however, many have had to swim their heats in the evening, come back for finals the following morning, and depending on their schedule, participate in more heats after that.
For these athletes, recovery is crucial. Speaking to the press after one of her finals, our own double gold medallist, Ariarne Titmus admitted that the adrenaline from her race wins has been keeping her awake at night.
“I was back in my room for about two hours. I tried to have a bit of a snooze and relax. I felt a little bit sluggish,” she said. “It was just about getting through.”
Knowing that recovery is important and not being able to sleep for extended periods means many Olympians will also take naps throughout the day to ensure they get the recovery they need. Without doing this, they simply wouldn't be able to perform at their best argues Harrington.
“Athletes can easily fail to get regular, consistent amounts of sleep, and this can adversely affect not only their physical performance but also their cognitive function, mood and reaction time.”
From blackout curtains to temperature-controlled rooms, hypoallergenic pillows and a reliable alarm clock, you can bet that athletes will leave nothing to chance when creating the best sleep environment – and neither should you.
Whether you're dreaming of gold or want more success in whatever it is you do, sleeping is an Olympic event that all of us qualify for. It might not be easy if you have bad sleep habits, but nothing worthwhile is. At the end of the day, you must decide whether you deserve to wake up feeling like a champion or not.
ResMed is a global leader in sleep technology that has its origins right here in Australia. Our goal is to provide people with the means to awaken their best and enjoy healthier lives by promoting good sleep habits and creating awareness for sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
Reyner LA and Horne JA. "Sleep restriction and serving accuracy in performance tennis players, and effects of caffeine." Physiol. Behav. 2013; 120:93-6.
Kline CE, Durstine JL, Davis JM, et al. “Circadian variation in swim performance.” J Appl Physiol. 2007; 102:641–9.
Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ and Dement WC. “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players.” Sleep. 2011; 34:943-50.
Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, et al. “Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes.” J Pediatr Orthop. 2014; 34(2):129-33.
Luke A, Lazaro RM, Bergeron MF, et al. “Sports-related injuries in youth athletes: is overscheduling a risk factor?” Clin J Sport Med. 2011; 21(4):307-14.
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