A lack of sleep can have major implications on an athlete’s performance (and also their general health and wellbeing). We have recently completed a study looking at the sleep habits of elite athletes (playing rugby, football or netball) and comparing them with other patients that presented to our clinic. Our hypothesis was that the elite athlete group, for a variety of lifestyle reasons, would have poor sleep hygiene. What we actually found was that virtually everyone had poor sleep hygiene. Reviewing the evidence about sleeping disorders this is perhaps not surprising. It has been estimated that about one in three adults have issues with sleep that can interfere with daily activities. Sleepiness has been associated with accidents at work or at home and is a recognised cause of serious automobile accidents and fatalities. It has been estimated that a lack of sleep is associated with direct and indirect costs (like a loss of work productivity) of $150 billion per year in the United States alone.

The importance of sleep for athletic performance is increasingly being recognised. It is however often overlooked for other more ‘fancy’ options like compression devices or supplements. A range of elite athletes, like Roger Federer, are known to routinely get between 10-12 hours a night. This is compared that to an average of 6.44 hours for the ‘common man’. The immediate physical downsides of not sleeping enough include reduced reaction times, lower metabolism, decreased strength and a sense that you’re exerting yourself much harder than you actually are.

Based on the results of our study you may wish to consider these tips to get a better night’s sleep.

  • Make sleep a priority. Actively decide that getting more sleep is important and change your lifestyle to accommodate this.
  • Develop a routine for how and when you go to bed. Try to go to sleep and wake at a similar time each night. When you change this pattern, irrespective of whether you actually get more sleep, it can negatively affect the impact on your sleep and recovery.
  • Try to make your room dark and noise free. That means using dark curtains and closing windows and doors.
  • Engage in a relaxing activity before turning the lights out. Have a bath, read a book or have a warm (non-caffeinated) drink.
  • Stay away from your phone, iPad or other ‘screens’ (blue light) for 30-60 minutes before bed. At the very least use a UV filter.
  • Avoid alcohol where possible.
  • Consider taking a 20-30 minute pre-match nap on days when you are competing.
By Dr Mark Fulcher on