Is athlete sleep different? 

Getting the right amount and quality of sleep is important for everyone, but are there aspects of a good night’s rest that apply specifically to you as an athlete? Sleep specialist Iuliana Hartescu from Loughborough University is involved with the latest research into sleep for high-performance athletes. Here, she answers some of the key questions concerning how sport and sleep are related. 

  • There are various aspects of sleep that are particularly relevant to you as elite athletes. 
  • Sleep expert Iuliana Hartescu has extensive experience in researching the links between elite sport and sleep. 
  • Here, she explores some of the main aspects of sleep and being an athlete, and explains why getting enough rest is vital for performance and well-being.  

Sleeping has been hard-wired into us by evolution. Sleep fulfils functions of energy conservation, offering us a period of time where we conserve energy that would otherwise be expended if we were awake. It also serves the purpose of brain restoration, giving time for our brain to go offline and replenish. Sleep is also important to immune and metabolic regulation. For athletes, therefore, getting sufficient sleep and a good quality of sleep are imperative for good regulation of all systems in the body. 

Do athletes need more sleep than others? 
Sleep differs between individuals and we all have different sleep needs, but there is insufficient research to define athletes as a group with different sleeping requirements. Most research to date shows that athletes tend to conform to the same requirements as the normal population for their age group.  

Why is sleep so important for athletes? 
In terms of performance, sleep disruption and sleep loss do not have a major impact on anaerobic performance, where athletes perform very similarly to normal when they have been sleep deprived. What does seem to be affected is the mental wellbeing of athletes and their motivation. Your belief about what type of effort and how much effort you need to improve on something may be affected by sleep loss. In addition, decisionmaking and skill execution seem to be affected, with more errors and delays in making quick decisions. Not only that, but you may experience a heightened emotional response to otherwise minor or neutral events, and these responses are most often negative. 

Do athletes suffer disproportionately from sleeping problems? 
There is a growing body of research which suggests that the prevalence of sleep disturbance in the athlete population is quite high, with estimates of the prevalence of insomnia ranging from 30 to 70 per centWhat is key is that these rates differ depending on whether you’re looking at athletes in individual or team sportsThere are also noticeable differences in sleep quality depending on when you measure sleep – whether that be during periods of trainingcompetition or rest 

There is a growing body of research which suggests that the prevalence of sleep disturbance in the athlete population is quite high,

During competition – especially in the nights preceding the competition – during travel and during training, there may be very specific challenges and the prevalence of disturbed sleep may be higher. So, there seem to be significant periods within an athlete’s life where the risk of sleeping problems peaks, and then perhaps troughs in other periods where they are not in competition or not in training. This is important because it means making statements about athletes as a whole must be done with care.  

In terms of diagnosed insomnia as a disorder, rather than simply disturbed sleep, the prevalence rates among athletes that we have are very contained. There are only a handful of studies that have properly looked into this, and the rates are similar to the general population, from 3 to 6 per cent. 

Why might disturbed sleep be particularly relevant to athletes? 
Athletes often report that they have difficulty falling asleep. This relates to cognitive arousal, or the ineffective shutting down of your mind before sleep. Sleep is often restricted because of travel or training scheduling. Travelling for a competition, say, often involves sleeping at inappropriate times for your internal circadian clock. Knowing when your opportunity to sleep will be, in order to take advantage of aligning your internal clock body with the natural local time, is very advantageous and should ideally be all scheduled before travel. 

I know that napping or daytime sleeping is widely used by elite athletes. It is used as both a performance enhancer but also as compensation for poor night-time sleep. This is something that we are currently investigating a bit more, in order to understand whether this strategy is actually effective in helping you cope with disrupted sleep or with sleep loss. 

Are you suffering from disturbed sleep? Read sleep expert Professor Jim Horne’s practical and simple guide to helping you sleep better here