Have you ever struggled to sleep before a major competition? It’s a problem for many athletes. We spoke to Professor Colin Espie, a sleep expert from the University of Oxford, to get some advice on sleeping well at the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018.

Can’t sleep before a competition?
Whatever you do don’t TRY to sleep. You need to allow your sleep to come and flow naturally. Sleep is a natural process that isn’t designed to be within your control. By trying to sleep and focusing on it too much you are more likely to have trouble falling asleep, or falling back to sleep if you wake up. Just relax and don’t worry if sleep seems elusive. It will come itself. If you can’t sleep, get up for a quarter of an hour and go back to bed when you feel sleepy. It’s like rebooting the system.

Sleeping while travelling
Travel can be challenging because it takes you out of your routine. That’s bad enough, but changing time zones can also affect our ability to sleep. You may still be on your old ‘body clock’ time. You can prepare a bit in advance of travel by adjusting your time to bed and time to rise to be gradually a bit closer to your new time zone.

Maybe four nights before you travel adjust bedtime and rise time by about 30 minutes per night. This means you can shift your body clock about two hours even before you get there. Again it’s important to relax about travel and accept that there is some inevitable disturbance to things, including sleep. It’s going to be the same for everyone else too.

Napping before a performance
Napping can refresh you, and if you feel ‘sleepy tired’ (struggling to stay awake and alert) it’s a good thing to do. This is different from just feeling fatigued or lacking in energy, where activity which is stimulating of the nervous system probably works best.

Keep your nap brief. People often ask how long should I nap? 10-20 minutes is ideal. This gives you the benefit of some restorative sleep but prevents you from getting into a deep sleep. If you nap for too long and get into what we call consolidated sleep it can be a struggle to wake up again, and you might feel worse! 

Tracking your sleep
Keeping track of your sleep can be a good thing and a bad thing, and it probably varies from person to person. The good thing about it is that it means that you are taking your sleep seriously; making sure that your sleep health is good and that you have a strong sleep pattern. It’s certainly a bad thing to try to cut the corners and get away with less sleep than you need.

On the other hand, getting preoccupied with your sleep can become almost an obsession! Whereas with your food intake or exercise regime you can more or less control that, with sleep, you can’t turn it ‘on’ or ‘off’ quite so easily. A bit like breathing, if you focus too much it can upset the natural rhythm.

Wearable devices that say they track or measure your sleep are not scientific devices. The information that they claim to provide about different types of sleep should not be trusted. Besides, you don’t need that level of detail anyway!