Sleeping on the job: The Importance of Rest For Peak Performance – by Daniel Gallan

Originally published on

We spend so much of our lives sleeping and the effect it has on us is so profound. Despite this, elite sport is still in its infancy when it comes to sleep research and its impact on performance. CONQA speaks to some of the world’s leading experts on sleep and recovery to discover why so many athletes struggle to sleep at night, how they can improve their sleep, what behaviours they should adopt and discard, and why, in a world where marginal gains could mean the difference between winning and losing, the field of sleep is still relatively unexplored.

Former Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens pretends to sleep on the ball after scoring a third-quarter touchdown against the Washington Redskins in their National Football League game in Landover, Maryland November 5, 2006. Owens, who has faced criticism for reportedly falling asleep in team meetings, was penalized for the celebration. Image sipplied by Action Images/ Andrew Cameron

Following the success of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, rugby union launched itself out of the sporting Dark Ages and into the world of professionalism. Though this was met with some hostility in Europe, particularly the Home Nations of England, Wales, and Scotland, the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses welcomed the change.

In 1996, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, at the time the only nations to win the World Cup, formed SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australian Rugby) and sought to create the most competitive domestic rugby tournament in the world.After the formation of SANZAR, Super Rugby, as the competition became known, morphed from 10 to 12 teams. It grew to 14 in 2004 and then to 15 in 2009. Clubs from Japan and Argentina will join next year meaning teams could potentially play matches in Buenos Aries one week and then Tokyo the next, covering a distance of 18 390km and 12 time zones.

Travel has always been a major criticism of the competition with many South African teams lamenting long tours and distances, blaming them for poor results away from home. A closer examination of the numbers indicates that over the course of the 2015 season, the Australian conference winners, the Waratahs (40 225km) travelled more than the South African conference winners, the Stormers (35 611km). However, it is the crossing of time zones and the effects this has on sleeping patterns that is the main concern for South African teams.

Desynchronosis, or more colloquially, jet lag, is a physiological condition that occurs when the body’s natural circadian rhythm is out of sync with the time zone it is in. Anyone who has travelled across time zones has felt the effects of being unable to sleep at night while struggling to stay awake during the day. Now imagine having to train like an elite athlete for a game in hostile territory in a few days’ time.“The biggest challenge with jet lag and resynchronisation is with training, as the intensity of performance is significantly reduced,” says Dr Jason Suter, the Medical Director at the Western Province Rugby Union. “As a coach, you have to manage the loads to protect your players because they are subpar.” As a result of irregular sleeping patterns and the difficulty of staying awake, training hours are lost. That time could have been spent on conditioning, skills acquisition, and team cohesion.

“What we’ve started doing is trying to take that traditional 10 day resynchronisation period and halving it,” adds Suter. “An important part of that is improving the sleep hygiene of the players as sleep is often ignored but has a major impact on recovery and performance.”

The reason why sleep is so important for athletes is that during deep sleep, or slow-wave sleep, the human growth hormone (also known as HGH) is released which is vital for muscle and tissue recovery, injury prevention, and inflammation reduction. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (also known as dreaming sleep as this is where most of our dreams take place) occurs in a lighter phase of sleep and is also important for athletes as this where memory consolidation (including muscle memory) occurs. As psychologist and sleep expert, Jason van Schie, says, “Deep sleep is where the body repairs itself physiologically and REM sleep is where the brain repairs itself psychologically.”

When athletes are at the height of training, either before or during competition, the proportion of their sleep that is spent in deep sleep is increased. This shows that the greater the intensity of training, the greater the need for deep sleep and the benefits it provides.

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment.

Missing out on a few hours here and there might not seem like a big deal, but the accumulated sleep debt can severely impact no only physiological recovery, but also sporting performance. “Losing up to two hours of sleep a night from stress, poor sleep habits, or jet lag, over the course of just seven days can show visible drops in reaction times, coordination, and general performance similar to the effects of a blood alcohol limit of 0.10,” van Schie says.

A major deterrent to healthy sleep is the technology that we love and surround ourselves with. Laptops, TVs, tablets, and phones all emit blue light. What that means is that the devices that we stare at throughout the day and well into the night replicate sunlight and can inhibit the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for drowsiness and sleepiness.

Before electricity, when the sun set, our world naturally got darker, temperatures dropped, and our body and mind prepared for sleep according to a natural circadian rhythm set by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (better known as the body clock). With all the technology at our disposal, melatonin is not being produced at a natural hour and as such we are finding it more and more difficult to fall asleep and achieve good restorative sleep.

According to van Schie, a study conducted in 2012 found that, “People who were looking at an electronic device for 2 hours before bed time had an average of 22% reduction in melatonin production over night.” This led to sleeping problems, a reduction of time spent in deep sleep and as a result, people experienced increases in day time tiredness. It’s important to remember that it is not necessarily the quantity of sleep that provides the benefits, but the quality of sleep.

Most athletes are under the age of 30 and many are still teenagers. Trying to get any young person to turn off their phone or tablet is difficult enough. Try telling a multimillionaire jet setter to turn off his or her phone and go to bed. Not likely. Coupled with the stress that elite athletes face and the demands from their managers, organisations, fans, and the media, it’s no wonder why so many athletes have trouble sleeping. What is a wonder is why such an important part of the human condition is only recently getting the attention it deserves in an industry that prides itself on leaving no stone unturned.“I think it’s fair to say that 30 years ago the demands that athletes face today just weren’t there,” says Nick Littlehales, a renowned sleep recovery coach and consultant. “We’ve never adopted good sleep hygiene but we were able to cope with it, we just didn’t know why and never bothered to find out.”In the 1990s, Littlehales was the sales and marketing director for an international bedding company. His job was to sell mattresses, pillows, and beds, and wanted to expand his knowledge on sleep and the way the human body responds to it. He figured that elite sport, with all its data and analytics, would prove to be a wealth of information. He contacted the nearest club to his offices, which just happened to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. What he discovered astounded him.

“What elite footballers, trainers, coaches, and managers knew about sleep and what their athletes were sleeping on, was no different to anyone on the high street,” says Littlehales. “Once I realised that these guys knew nothing about this field, I stepped in to help and I’m still amazed at the lack of knowledge that the elite sport industry has with regards to sleep.”Littlehales has since worked with some of the biggest names in elite sport with Real Madrid, British Cycling, The National Rugby League, and a host of other organisations and teams learning from the retired salesman and golf pro. “I have always focussed on elite sport simply because elite sport focusses on me,” he says.

What Littlehales focusses on is the environment that the athletes sleep in. The human brain loves consistency and routine, especially when it comes to sleep. What Littlehales does is educate athletes and organisations on how best to replicate the optimal environment that promotes the physical and mental recovery of the athlete. As he stresses, sleep is nothing more than the natural restoration of the body and mind, and anything that hinders that process needs to be removed. In fact, Littlehales insists on calling bedrooms “sleep recovery rooms”, as that is their primary function.Littlehales also educates athletes and organisations about identifying their individual chronotype. Van Schie divides chronotypes into “owls”; people who prefer to go to sleep later and are full of energy later in the day, and “larks”; people who are early risers, but drop off soon after the sun has set. It’s important to know what category your athlete falls under. For example, if two footballers have the same ability to convert a penalty in an all-important shoot-out late at night, understanding which athlete naturally has more energy at a specific time of the day could be vital.It is also advised to shift one’s thinking from the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night to 5 nightly cycles of 90 minutes each. That amounts to 35 cycles per week as a target. “8 hours, in today’s world, for the majority of individuals, is simply unattainable,” says Littlehales. “Instead, focus on 35 cycles per week. You probably won’t get it, but anything near 30 is fine.”

By breaking the sleep cycle into 90 minute chunks, an athlete is able to manage his or her expectations on their perceived value of sleep. Need to attend a late night meeting? Have a dinner plan that extends past your bed time? It’s not a problem provided you are near 30 cycles per week, keep a regular pre-sleep routine, and have a positive perceived value on your sleep and recovery.

Nick Littlehales has worked with some of the most well funded and successful teams in elite sport. He educates elite athletes and coaches on how to get the most out of sleep, how to create an environment that encourages proper sleep hygiene, and how to manage expectations with regards to rest and recovery. Image supplied by Sport Sleepcoach.

“Sport tries to make everything academic and scientific,” says Littlehales. “You now have sleep pods that cost around $2 500 and special products and mattresses that cost thousands of dollars but it’s all not necessary. The truth is, if you can’t replicate the same environment wherever you are, then all the products and processes are going to be counterproductive.”

If it seems a little too simple, that’s because it is. What Littlehales does is provide clubs and athletes with information on how to create a consistent environment, which is vital to establishing a healthy and regular sleep pattern.

Using thicker curtains that block out light, removing technology from the bedroom, having a hot shower before bed to raise body temperature before entering a cool room and bed, finding a pillow that suits your body’s needs, staying in hotels that provide appropriate light levels at appropriate times; simple and minor alterations to one’s sleep routine can have profound effects once a pattern has been established.

In order to establish a routine that can be replicated on long distance plane trips, Suter and the Stormers management encourage their players to use a product called Sleep Spec. Developed by Dr Robert Daniel, these amber glasses block out blue light and allows the user to use their phones and tablets before bed without the negative effects that would normally entail.

So far, the results have been anecdotal, but Suter is positive that the regular use of the glasses, and the production of melatonin that they encourage, have contributed to the Stormers being the most successful South African team in terms of games missed through injury. Suter also reports that the players that regularly wear the glasses on plane trips are less affected by jet lag and are therefore able to train at 100% much sooner than those who do not wear them regularly.

Elite athletes have amplified stress and expectations that, despite their often exorbitant salaries, many of us simply can’t relate to. Whatever can aid their physical and mental recovery should be explored. A well-rested athlete is always going to outperform someone who is fatigued or injury prone. It is these margins that relegate potential champions to the footnote of someone else’s glory