When it comes to performance, there are many areas where athletes, coaches, and support staff go looking for gains. Historically, this was primarily centered around what happened on the training ground or in the gym. In recent years, there has been an increased interest in what the athlete does away from training, bringing in the concept of the 24-hour athlete and driving athletes and coaches to explore factors such as recovery, nutrition, and performance lifestyle in greater depth. In general, this has led to the propagation of “marginal gains,” whereby trying to get 1% better at a variety of different performance-influencing variables leads to small improvements that accumulate over time—a concept that has been both widely lauded and criticized.
Whether or not the concept of marginal gains is useful or valid, it has been used by teams that have had a lot of success (not that I’m saying the two are linked). The now defunct British-based cycling team Team Sky, whose former performance director David Brailsford popularized the concept, famously took their own mattresses and pillows to major races so that their riders could sleep in an environment they were used to and comfortable with. When I was selected for the 2008 Olympic Games, I was provided with a pillow alongside all my kit, with the idea being that I would take it home, sleep with it for a couple of weeks, and then take it with me to the Olympics—allowing me to get used to it and control another variable that might have influenced my performance.A lack of sleep has been shown to negatively affect sporting performance, and if you do something for roughly 1/3 of your life, it makes sense to try to optimize that activity as much as possible. Click To Tweet
All of this is a lot of effort, which suggests that athletes, coaches, and support staff place a premium on optimizing sleep. On the surface, this seems logical; a lack of sleep has been shown to negatively affect sporting performance, and if you do something for roughly a third of your life, it makes sense to try to optimize that activity as much as possible. I’ve written about this before for SimpliFaster (here and here), and, in general, I think that athletes and coaches now better understand the role sleep plays in performance.
But there is still work to be done, which is why a recent book—Inconvenient Sleep: Why Teams Win and Lose—caught my interest. Authored by Patrick Byrne and his daughter Suzanne—both of whom act as sleep and fatigue consultants to sports teams and businesses—the book explores the facts and myths behind sleep, sleep science, and sleep monitoring within sport (team sports in particular).
The Science of Sleep
In the first chapter, “Game On,” the Byrnes make the case for how a lack of sleep—on the part of players, coaches, and officials—affects performance. The example of the officials was something I hadn’t considered before: Because a lack of sleep can harm cognitive performance, sleep-deprived match officials might make poor decisions, affecting the outcome of a game. Many sports are now waking up to this and taking steps to ensure their officials are able to get sufficient sleep and recovery between games and around travel.
The authors also identify key barriers to sufficient sleep duration and quality in team sport athletes, namely:
- Travel and time changes.
- Early morning practices.
- Late night eating (to maintain weight).
- For student athletes, all the time spent studying, especially close to assignment deadlines and before exams.
The subsequent chapters take the reader on a journey through the science of sleep. Chapter 2, for instance, provides an overview of sleep science and sleep disorders, while chapter 3 explores how the veneer of science has been used to sell sleep-related products and services to consumers. This is primarily done through the prism of sleep supplements, such as GABA, vitamin B6, and melatonin, with the authors making an important distinction that just because a research finding is statistically significant, that does not make it real-world significant. For example, if a sleep supplement can get you to sleep five minutes faster, does this really matter?
Products and Performance
Chapter 4 then applies this same process to the growing market of sleep gadgets, such as sleep trackers. The important conclusion of this chapter is that the majority of commercial sleep trackers are poorly validated and likely not reliable. Many of these products struggle to distinguish between the different stages of sleep, for example, and can over- or under-estimate total sleep time by up to 30 minutes. The key takeaway here is that, when it comes to purchasing sleep technology, look for peer-reviewed validity and reliability studies—which will increase your confidence that the information you’re getting is actually useful.
Chapter 5 is then an overview of statistical methods in science research. These chapters are all quite interesting—it’s information that we might have come across separately before in other books, blogs, and papers, but it is useful to see it all in one place, and it does help advance the story the authors are building.
The book then moves on to how poor sleep results in poor performance and longer recovery times, detailing some of the studies carried out in great depth. A lot of these studies are not carried out in a sports setting—the U.S. military, for example, has a huge interest in supporting the performance of its “athletes” during prolonged operations in the field, which often involve little sleep and substantial overnight activities. This lack of sports specificity is understandable—you can’t write about research that hasn’t been carried out—but it does make giving specific advice somewhat difficult.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter, for me at least, was that in the studies that do explore sleep durations and performance in high-level athletes, the athletes tended to over-report their sleep durations by about an hour—meaning that athletes are probably getting less sleep than they think. Chapter 7, the penultimate chapter, then looks at chronobiology and its associated issue, jet lag, with the main finding being that the research is not at a point where it can be used to provide validated solutions to athletes.Generally, athletes are motivated to win, not necessarily to sleep better, so the benefits of sleep need to be framed as being of a performance benefit to the athlete. Click To Tweet
Chapter 8 is where the main payoff for the book comes, and where the authors discuss how to integrate sleep-based education and support into the activities of a sports team—with an important quote from sleep researcher Amy Bender, who states “knowledge alone doesn’t change behaviour.” Generally, athletes are motivated to win, not necessarily to sleep better, so the benefits of sleep need to be framed as being of a performance benefit to the athlete.
The authors recommend getting an understanding of where each athlete is at baseline, although a risk of collecting information through validated and reliable technologies is that, in the U.S. at least, such data might be considered as protected under various laws and legislations. This data can then be used as the basis for further education and support, with the main takeaway being that this is an ongoing process that can be constantly tweaked and refined.
Inconvenient Sleep is probably best suited for coaches and athletes who are perhaps at the beginner stages of becoming more “professional” in their approach to a performance lifestyle and haven’t been exposed to much of the sleep-health education that has been building over the past couple of years. More experienced coaches and athletes can still gain really important information from the book, but it’s perhaps a little bit dispersed—the work contains useful information on the (mis)use of statistical methods in research, how science can be twisted to provide support for products, and key things to keep in mind when it comes to considering new technologies. All of this is useful, but it might not be useful to everyone all at once.
I also think it’s worthwhile to highlight some of the issues that might arise with an increased interest in sleep. Once we start measuring something, it becomes a data point that is easy to become obsessed about. From a sleep perspective, this has been shown to increase anxiety around getting enough total sleep and of a sufficient quality.It’s worthwhile to highlight some of the issues that may arise with increased interest in sleep. One we start measuring something, it becomes a data point that’s easy to obsess over. Click To Tweet
As highlighted by the authors of this book, sleep trackers aren’t always that accurate…so what happens when you get inaccurate results? If your sleep tracker says you haven’t slept properly, how does this affect how you feel throughout the day? Is there a danger in collecting too much information from athletes—do they start to feel more like data points than real people? Do objective measures need to trump subjective measures in this area? These are all questions we don’t yet have the answer to, but that are important to keep in mind when considering sleep education and potential monitoring in your athlete group.
In summary, we’re at the point now where we understand that:
- Sleep is important.
- Many athletes don’t get enough sleep.
Spurred on by these findings, there is an increased interest in optimizing the sleep habits of athletes to support their overall performance. To that end, Inconvenient Sleep: Why Teams Win and Lose is a solid read on the subject, and it is perhaps the first book I’ve read that has taken a somewhat skeptical approach to sleep measurement in athletes—that alone is a huge plus point.
That perspective is also a crucial point of difference with many other offerings, especially as interest in this area grows, along with a seemingly ever-increasing array of sleep technologies coming to market. If understanding the role of sleep in sport is important to you—and the practical applications of sleep enhancement programs is high on your agenda—then this book is certainly well worth a closer look.
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