Nick Littlehales, the “elite sports sleep coach,” is the author of the new book Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps… and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind. I loved it, and you should definitely check it out, even if you aren’t an elite athlete. I decided the concept of sleep as a performance enhancer and recovery tool for athletes (using Nick’s comments from our interview) would make a great topic for my latest newspaper column.
No one would ever mistake me for LeBron James or Tom Brady, but I am like these and so many other elite athletes in at least one way: I struggle to get enough sleep. Admittedly, I’m writing this column at 4 AM before clinic and surgery.
It’s no wonder why top athletes struggle with sleep.
Encouraging sleep doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Tom Brady maintains a nine PM bedtime and LeBron James and Steph Curry sleep eight to night hours per night in addition to taking naps every day.
The benefits of sleep for athletes and active people
While we’ve known for decades that sleep plays a key role in alertness, decision-making and reaction times, more light is being shed on its powerful influence over cardiovascular performance, endurance, and even injury prevention. Since the body produces human growth hormone while we sleep, getting enough rest can help our muscles grow and recover faster.
Research on the role of sleep as a performance enhancer
Getting enough sleep could even improve on field or on-court performance. A study of Stanford’s men’s basketball team found that when the players got 10 hours of sleep each night, their free-throw and three-point shooting accuracy improved and they ran faster during practices and games.
On the opposite side, evidence suggests that lack of sufficient sleep has both short- and long-term consequences on performance. One study of Major League Baseball players found that batters’ plate discipline – not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone – became much worse over the course of the season. A second study found that MLB players who reported feeling sleepy tended to have shorter careers than did rested players.
Aware of these findings, professional sports organizations are turning to sleep experts to help their players recover faster and improve the teams’ performance.
The role of sleep coaching in sports
Enter Nick Littlehales, the sleep coach of elite sports and author of the new book Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps… and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind. Think sleep coaching is still a small niche? Guess again. Littlehales has consulted for European soccer teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Real Madrid and professional and Olympic athletes in rugby, cycling, and many other sports.
Physical and mental recovery is a challenge for today’s athletes
Besides the benefits of sleep, Littlehales’ finds serious job security in travel schedules of elite athletes. Today’s professional athletes face longer seasons with more travel and media obligations than ever. NBA players, for instance, might play in four cities over a period of just five nights. Each game ends after midnight and before the sun comes up, they’re expected to be on their next flight.
With night games and routine cross-country flights, a professional basketball or football player might not get a full night’s sleep. The consequences of these routines show up on the field and scoreboard. Littlehales described an athlete who was frequently committing unnecessary fouls and thereby hurting the team on the field. Looking into the situation, Littlehales found the player was not getting sufficient sleep and relying on energy drinks to perform. Once he adjusted the athlete’s schedule and taught the player how to react when sports obligations arose, his temperament and reactions improved. Soon, the athlete’s penalties dropped, benefiting the whole team.
Focus on sleep cycles and naps
What’s a professional athlete to do? Littlehales explained to me that he focuses on the athlete’s entire day and not just his or her sleep time. He stresses 90-minute sleep cycles in which the athlete goes through the various sleep cycles. A night of five consecutive cycles would roughly correlate to the traditional eight-hour recommendation. Ideally an athlete would get 35 of these cycles each week. If a full night of sleep isn’t possible in one session, the athlete could get two or three 90-minute sleep cycles in the hotel, then fit in a nap on the next flight and repeat the process again the next day before afternoon practice.
Optimal recovery necessary for everyone
Littlehales argued that the benefits of sleep coaching are not constrained to athletes. Adjusting schedules to optimize recovery can also help the rest of us at work or school.
To experience the benefits in our own lives, many sleep experts recommend decreasing dependency on sleeping pills, decreasing caffeine and alcohol consumption, decreasing the use of phones and other technology at night and cutting out inflammatory foods.
Sleep and recovery become key for athletes and professional teams
This is no longer about sleep. It’s about physical and mental recovery. In our interview, Littlehales explained there is tremendous value in “the knowledge that you’re doing everything in the correct manner, when to do it, why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it. It can mean the difference of crossing that finish line or climbing that mountain – and being able to do it again the following day, to the same levels.”
As more data and top athletes praise the benefits of sleep, we may enter a new frontier in sports where rest matters more than Red Bull and who starts depends on who snoozed.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the November 9, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
In multibillion-dollar business of NBA, sleep is the biggest debt. By Ken Berger. CBS Sports. June 7, 2016.
How good sleep became a game-changer for the NBA’s best players. Darren Reidy. Van Winkle’s. June 4, 2016.
Studies Link Fatigue and Sleep to Major League Baseball (MLB) Performance and Career Longevity. sleepfoundation.org.