To reach the extreme levels of performance they do, we assume that the training and eating habits of the world’s elite athletes are extremely strict. But how about when it comes to sleep? Are there established routines? Do they follow hard and fast rules? And do team and individual athletes have different habits?
Doctors and healthcare specialists working with Olympic athletes and other professional sportsmen and women all agree – sleep is absolutely vital if they’re to perform at their peak. The connection between how well rested an athlete is and their physical and cognitive performance is undisputed. When we’re asleep our bodies repair muscle tissue, top up stamina levels and help us regain general alertness. But does this differ from sport to sport or depend on varying physical demands?
Routine delivers results
Triathletes are considered to be one of the toughest group of sportsmen and women on the planet. They push their bodies to the limit over extended periods of time, setting new benchmarks for physical endurance as they do so. So how do they ensure they are well-rested for both training and competition? A study of triathletes revealed some defined patterns. For example, many professional triathletes try to get the same amount of sleep every night, whether they are resting, training or even competing the day after. They also tend to follow a routine with a set bedtime every night rather than a ‘I’ll go to bed when I’m tired’ approach. Within this group there was also a significant minority who strongly believed in the benefits of power napping particularly during intensive training or competition weeks.
How does sleep improve athletic performance?
For triathletes, it would seem that routine is important. But specifically, how does a good, regular night’s sleep improve performance? It’s been proven that a better rested athlete enjoys the following benefits –
- The capacity to make fewer mistakes.
- Faster reaction times.
- Accuracy – for example, as the baseball season progresses and tiredness levels increase, pitching and batting accuracy levels tend to fall. Good sleeping habits can minimise this deterioration.
- Studies have shown that athletes with better sleep and resting habits suffer less injuries.
World class results demand world class sleep
Interestingly, there is a clear difference between team and individual sports when it comes to how much sleep professional athletes require. Research shows that individual sport athletes sleep on average 6.5 hours a night while team sports came in at 7 hours. It was also reported that individual athletes were more prone to taking a nap. Two icons from the modern era of sport would seem to confirm this theory. Serena Williams, 39 times Grand Slam tennis winner reached her tenth Wimbledon final only 10 months after giving birth – a fact she partly puts down to her unwavering commitment to regular sleep routines, high quality mattresses and pillows and regular daytime naps. From the world of team sports, New England Patriots legend Tom Brady likes his 8 hours, going to bed during the season at 830pm (often before his kids) and rising at 530 am – and at 39 years of age and still at the peak of his powers, he would seem to have found the perfect sleeping method.
It’s not only at elite level that sleep is being leveraged to increase performance levels – this part-time soccer team from England identified the importance of quality rest. By carefully analysing everything from bedroom temperature to body positions when sleeping, each player was given an individual rest plan. The club also went to the expense of having special mattresses and pillows made for each player with their individual characteristics in mind. As a result, recovery after matches improved exponentially as did decision making during games. The new strategy also improved the player’s stamina levels which led to positive results on the field. The culmination of this being when the team managed to turn a 0-3 deficit 15 minutes from full-time into a 4-3 win. Luck? These players and staff might tell you otherwise.