In sport the difference between winning and losing is so often by the smallest of margins. It’s for that reason sporting organisations and athletes all over the world are investing more time and attention to the likes of nutrition, mindfulnness and various other means to gain those extra few percentages. What if though, you could improve your performance, mindset and wellbeing through sleep?
“It’s clear that the area of sleep is finally getting its deserved attention,” says Danish sleep expert Anna West. “Having good sleep habits can improve you mentally, physiologically and is the most natural and legal performance enhancer.”
Anna is the founder of Sleep2Perform and has worked with the likes of Brentford FC, the Swiss ice hockey team and many other athletes, helping them find ways to improve their sleep and, in turn, transform precious Z’s into precious W’s.
“Optimal sleep is essential for athletes to recover from the many mental and physical demands that come with sport. Sleep and fatigue represent a significant piece of the human performance puzzle. Sleep deprivation can lead to poorer performances, decreased arousal levels and motivation, then leading to poor attention and concentration.“
She suggests however that her work doesn't involve a magic formula in which you follow four or five rigid steps and suddenly you’re sleeping brilliantly and performing even better than brilliantly. Instead, Anna’s work involves helping to guide individuals to a greater understanding and awareness of how to improve and make the most of their sleep.
“My job is to put this knowledge we have about sleep and the benefits it can provide into implementable strategies, that can help people change poor habits and understand the significance of sleep as a natural performance enhancer. What I do is help people find a way to understand themselves and hack themselves. It’s impossible to just say that this works and that works, there’s no one size fits all method.”
We are living in a period of time where we like things to be black or white. We purchase self-help books promising that if six simple rules are followed then happiness or greater performances will follow. Something is either seen as good in our pursuit for improvement or it’s bad. This is the same when it comes to our views on sleeping in the sense that we have a tendency to believe that things either help us sleep or they don’t. Anna says however that things are often far too nuanced and complex to categorically rule out whether something will help to improve sleep or not. Take looking at screens before bed for example, this is often widely accepted as being a negative when it comes to getting a good quality of sleep.
“I’m not rigid at all. You’ll hear many sleep therapists say that looking at a laptop, phone or table makes you more alert, engaged and energised and there is absolutely a truth to it. For an older demographic that is certainly true, but for younger people where a fear of missing out can be huge, is it not always black and white when we talk about the use of electronics before bedtime. A fear of missing out can lead to an increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, the feeling of stress and anxiety which are all factors that can hinder a good night’s sleep”
In a world that can so often be as clinical and performance-focussed as sport, Anna suggests that the biggest challenge within her work has been changing outdated perceptions of making a conscious effort to improve sleep and realising its its importance to performance.
“In some environments there’s a degree of honour about saying to people that you can survive on five hours sleep, especially if it’s a very macho environment. The barrier of how you feel just starts to lower down and you start to believe that the level you are reaching is your optimal level. Then you start to sleep better and think to yourself, I was feeling crap and now I am feeling and performing so much better. It sounds like I am sat on my own little sleep pedestal, but you will not have success in any other domains relating to performance optimisation if your foundation, sleep, isn’t solid.
“More and more research has looked at the connection between injury statistics and poor sleep. As an example it has been shown that athletes who sleep below 8 hours have a 1.7 times greater risk of developing a muscle injury over a 24 month span. That’s a high risk to take. So I always ask athletes ‘you invest all that in your performance but you’re willing to take that risk?’ It doesn’t really add up. Once people translate it from ‘oh I need sleep’ to ‘oh I am investing in my performance optimisation’, suddenly their face changes and they want to know how to invest in it”
Whilst Anna is keen to reiterate that there is no one size fits all method when it comes to making the most out of sleep, she does suggest that there are a few things that can be put in place in order to put yourself in the best possible position to get some golden kip.
- Get out and about
“I’d say that getting outside every day is so important. If you can, get sun exposure, if not then even being exposed to nature can help so much. If you are active and getting out and doing stuff then it really helps support the body clock. We’re not built to sit on our backsides, so if the brain doesn’t feel as if it has been stimulated enough then we will struggle to sleep.”
2. Be consistent, when you can.
“Consistency is unbeatable when it comes to tips for improving your sleep. If possible, create consistent bed and awake times and support by doing things that relax an hour before bedtime, have a warm bath, open the windows to get fresh air 15 minutes before you sleep. Little things like that are triggers for your body to unwind and realise that it’s time to get ready to sleep.”
3. Be aware of sleep hygiene
“It’s very popular to say sleep in a cool temperature room but it’s true. Feeling warm, although it may feel nice and relax you, doesn’t work well with having a good sleep. Sleeping in a cool room, research shows, helps enormously with quality of sleep. Make sure that you are well hydrated during the day. If you go to bed even slightly dehydrated, it can mees up you sleep. However, remember that you fluid intake should be spread out throughout the day.
“And be aware of what garment you sleep in. A few years back I did a project in a Danish football club. Pre project most of the players slept in a cotton shirt or in the nude. We split the team in two and asked one of the groups to start wearing a dry-fit material which supported to stabilise temperature throughout the night. Our data clearly showed that the group who slept in a material that supported to get the sweat away from the body, improved their quality of sleep and subjectively felt that they slept far better than those who slept naked or in a cotton pyjamas.
4. Have a day debrief before you sleep
“The idea of writing down your thoughts before you go to bed or doing a brainstorm, from a research perspective, is proven to reduce sleep latency by around 50 percent. It can be a really effective way to organise your brain before you go to bed. What is important though is that if you’re doing an exercise like this, you put actions to thoughts. Rather than doing a brainstorm and writing what worries you and then putting your head onto the pillow with your worries now flying across your thoughts, write what is on your mind, why it’s on your mind and what you plan to do about it.”
5. Find out YOUR top five sleeping tips and what helps YOU sleep!
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