Player Welfare: Sleep

Player Welfare: Sleep

We all love a good snooze, but there’s a lot more to it than tucking up in your blanket and closing your eyes. Sleep is one of the most important things our body needs to function at its best and arguably at the top of the list when it comes to recovery from sport. With that said, us rugby players don’t always find it easy to get our zzz’s. Add to that the menstrual cycle and the ups and downs of our hormones throughout the month and a lot of us girls can experience difficulties with our sleep. There’s a ton of information out there on how to get a good night’s sleep – from sipping on chamomile tea, knocking back shots of tart cherry juice, taking CBD oil, burning aromatic candles or listening to calming music – it’s tough to know what’s right for us and what’s specific to female athletes.
As part of our Player Welfare campaign we’ve teamed up with Luke Gupta. Luke is a sleep and circadian scientist at the English Institute of Sport, working with Olympic and Paralympic athletes and completed a PhD at Loughborough University investigating ways to improve the ability of elite sports to measure and manage sleep health. In short, Luke is a sleep guru within sport and the perfect person to answer our questions. Luke will be leading a live Zoom Q&A on sleep just for us on Sunday 21st March from 10.30am – 11.15am. Make sure to register for the Q&A here so we can send you the link. In the meantime, Luke has kindly answered some of our burning sleep questions below. Happy reading and sweet dreams! What actually happens when we sleep from a recovery perspective? The first point to make is that during sleep our brains do not switch off like a computer. Many processes are, in fact, switched on during. Sleep is restorative, but what its restoring remains unresolved. In the context of sport, we can look at sleep as providing a vehicle for recovery. An underappreciated feature of sleep is that is provides a period of immobility where we are off our feet for a long period. Other processes include cleaning away the waste in our brains produced by being simply being awake. Our brains also organise and store information we have received during the day. Our body’s immune system becomes active during sleep, and hormones are produced that provide the foundation for the rebuilding of tissue to take place. Do girls and women sleep differently to boys and men? If so, why? Yes, according to the evidence women are more susceptible to sleep disruption, and sleep problems than men across all ages. But, the jury is out as to why this is so – one possible reason could be the additional challenges to sleep experienced by women, that are absent in men e.g. menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause. However, another reason could be that women’s sleep is more reactive, meaning that sleep is more easily disturbed when placed under challenge in women, when compared to men. However, earlier evidence has suggested women may preserve psychological performance under sleep deprivation better than men. How can the menstrual cycle impact sleep and are there particular stages of the cycle during which our sleep might be disrupted? Many women in general report sleep disruption in the lead up to and during menstruation. However, research into the area is lacking, and even more so in athletes. What we think may be a possible direct mechanism to greater sleep disruption, is the rise in body temperature that coincides with menstrual cycling. Our body temperature drops during the night promoting deeper phases of sleep, and a higher body temperature may prevent this process from happening as readily. Another possible mechanism are changes in emotional and psychological state in the lead up to and during menstruation (e.g. mood), which in turn may influence sleep. What are the different phases of sleep and what do they mean? Sleep phasing moves through multiple cycles throughout the night with each cycle lasting approx. 80-110 mins. Within each sleep cycle there are 4 distinct phases. Through each ‘sleep cycle’, sleep changes in terms of ‘depth’ and therefore responsiveness. We transition from being awake to light sleep, (from which someone is easily awoken), and then from light sleep through to deep sleep (where it is difficult to wake someone up). While we do not completely understand the function of each phase of sleep, we know the balance and duration of all sleep phases contribute to supporting our ability to perform during the day.
Do athletes need more sleep and if so how many hours would you recommend a night? There is little evidence to support athletes need more sleep than others. Sleep duration needs are dictated more so by age, with younger athletes needing more sleep than older athletes. Adults require at least 7 hours of sleep, and teenagers require at least 8 hours of sleep. It is important to be aware that sleep need is highly individual and therefore will not be the same for everyone. It is important to note our sleep need reflects all sleep across the entire day, and not just what we get at night. If you are unsure of how much sleep you need, then run an easy experiment. Sleep for slightly more or less than normal; and see if you are more or less sleepy during the following day. What’s the verdict on napping - is it beneficial and if so for how long and at what time of the day is best? Napping can be beneficial for performance required later in the day; but can also trigger sleep inabilities at night. A short nap, taken earlier in the day can boost alertness, without making athletes less sleepy at night. A short nap of 20-30 minutes will have an alerting effect, but so will 10 minutes. Naps greater than 30 minutes can have longer lasting effects, but take longer to kick in. People are most likely to fall asleep during the daytime within ‘afternoon lull’ (between approx. 1-4pm); but sleeping after this point may lead to sleep inability at night as you are less likely to be very sleepy. It is worth noting, that not everyone can nap, nor does everyone need to. Some people can maintain alertness throughout the day without the need for a nap. If we’re having difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep, what are some things we can do to help? The first thing to understand is that some sleep inability is experienced by many athletes; and is therefore this is normal. However, if you are taking longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep for three or more times per week for a period of 3 months or greater, then you want to consider seeking some support. The second thing to understand is that there are no tricks to falling asleep quickly. An athlete’s most powerful tool to enhance their sleepability is knowing how falling asleep works. A good starting point is knowing what circumstances falling asleep is likely to occur. So, we are most likely to fall asleep when 1) you are appropriately sleepy, 2) it is the right time of night, 3) your place of sleeping is familiar, and 4) when you are feeling calm. If any of these are not ticked when you are trying to fall asleep then you are less likely to do so. What are some of the issues that can arise for athletes who aren’t getting enough sleep? We know that adequate sleep in terms of its duration (but also in terms of quality and timing) support the psychological, physical, and emotional demands of training, competition and recovery. In the context of training or competing, then, not getting enough sleep may to lead to impairments in some aspects of your performance. Specifically, a lack of sleep can lead to impairments in your ability to execute skills, make decisions and manage your emotions. Interestingly our physical performance (e.g. running fast or jumping high) appears to be more resilient to not getting enough sleep.

Join Luke on Sunday 21st March for a Zoom webinar all about sleep.



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