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Case study: The role of Sleep in elite sporting performance

CONTEXT

Modern training techniques in elite sport are very precise to the extent that many athletes are able to schedule nearly every aspect of their waking hours.  They can plan what to do in training each day, for how long and at what level of intensity.  Likewise other elements such as rest, recovery, treatment from physios and medical staff and what to eat and drink are all things that can be meticulously planned as part of an athlete’s regime.

When athletes are not training or recovering, the activity they are most likely to be doing is sleeping.  On average, an athlete is likely to spend around a third of their time sleeping, yet despite every effort being made to schedule their waking hours, very little is known about what happens when they are not awake or the role of sleep in the performance of elite athletes.

To help learn more about this relatively unknown, yet potentially significant, area the EIS’s Physiology team has been studying sleep in elite athletes throughout the Rio cycle and trying to establish if there is potential to deliver performance improvements through a better understanding of the role it plays in the training and preparation of athletes.

RESEARCH

The basis of the EIS’s work is a series of PhD research studies by Luke Gupta which, in the first instance, studied the sleep quality of over 400 elite athletes.  This is one of largest studies ever done of the sleeping habits of elite athletes and examined a range of factors such as the duration of sleep, deprivation and the individual athlete’s perception of their sleep quality.

Following the initial study, the research went on to look at the issue of napping and used polysomnography, which is regarded as the gold standard of assessing sleep, to test the differences between the general public (15 students) and athletes in in their propensity to be able to sleep (on demand) in the day-time.  The findings of this study led to a further study which examined the role of stress and subsequent sleep disturbances in a small number of sports.

By analysing the findings of this research and comparing it with existing studies in this area, the EIS has increased its knowledge and understanding of sleep amongst elite athletes and has begun to develop interventions with a range of sports designed to help athletes:

  • To better understand their own sleeping habits
    To develop individualised strategies to improve sleep
    To improve their recognitions and understanding of some of the physiological and psychological factors that affect sleep
    To better understand and educate athletes on their ‘downtime’ and how to make the most of it

CASE STUDY: GB Boxing – Improving the sleeping habits of elite athletes

In line with the findings of Luke Gupta’s research and as part of the work to increase the EIS’s knowledge about the role of sleep in elite athletes a specific intervention was delivered with the GB Boxing squad by the EIS Physiologist that works with the team, Laura Needham.

The project, which aimed to help improve recovery and sleeping habits amongst members of GB Boxing’s Podium squad, and reflected the fact that the world class programme for boxing is based in Sheffield at a training centre with its own athlete accommodation where the boxers sleep for at least three nights each week when they are in camp.  It was backed by GB Boxing’s Performance Director, Rob McCracken, and took place in four phases throughout 2015.

Phase 1: Data collection

The sleeping habits of every boxer in the Podium squad were investigated using the globally recognised Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) which is a formal metric to assess an individual’s sleep experience.  This revealed 80% of the squad were recognised as ‘poor sleepers’ and provided supporting evidence for the project to go ahead.

Phase 2: Upgrade of sleep environment at GB Boxing training camp

Following the results of the PSQI, a decision was made to invest in upgrading the ‘sleep environment’ in the boxers’ accommodation in Sheffield.   Bed sizes were increased, so 37 single beds were replaced by 33 double and four extra-long singles.  The quality of the bedding materials were improved with sheets, duvets and pillows using breathable, quick drying fabrics.  The materials created a hypo-allergenic barrier to limit the build-up of allergens in the bedrooms and create a fresh, easy breathing, sleep environment.

Phase 3: Individualised sleep strategies and education

Stage three involved further testing of the boxers to gain an individual snapshot of their specific sleeping habits and Involved fitting each one with a ‘sleep watch’ that measured the length and quality of their sleep over a period of weeks in a three different environments.  These included GB Boxing’s athlete accommodation in Sheffield, at home and at an overseas training camp in Kazakhstan.

The results provided insights that informed the final element of the intervention which used this data to develop individualised sleeping strategies for every boxer that reflected their physiological sleeping patterns and preferences.  These were delivered by Laura Needham to every member of the Podium squad on a one-to-one basis as part of on-going education programme.

Results

Ten months after the original PSQI test, Laura Needham repeated the test which revealed a significant turnaround with 80% of the boxers now rated as ‘good sleepers’ on the PSQI global scale.  It showed:

  • On average, the boxers were sleeping for 24 minutes longer each night
    The boxer’s sleep efficiency had increased form 79% to 84%
    Subjective sleep quality had improved significantly

Joshua Buatsi, who will compete for Team GB at light-heavyweight in Rio said: “I used wake-up with headaches every morning and I didn’t realise it was from lack of sleep.  Now I cannot remember the last time I woke-up with a headache so that’s been a big improvement for me with the sleep programme.  I have realised that having good quality sleep is all about getting into a pattern that suits me.”

Former Olympic bronze medallist, Richie Woodhall, who works as a consultant coaching with the GB Boxing squad said: “On average, the boxers are sleeping for 24 minutes longer each night.  When you add it up over the course of a cycle it could be as much as 29 or 30 days extra sleep.  That can be the difference between winning a medal or going out in the first round.”

GB Boxing’s Performance Director, Rob McCracken said: “The sport science staff from the EIS that work with the GB Boxing programme all do a great job and really help the boxers and coaches.  We have added a physiologist to the team for the Rio cycle which has really enhanced our work and the sleep project is a good example of how we can use this expertise to continue to make improvements in the way we prepare and train the boxers.”