Sporty Winks

By Nick Littlehales  |  23 Mar 2015

This article first appeared in Issue Eight of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015

Like sleep experts and researchers the world over, I have dedicated my life to uncovering the true impact of sleep deprivation on the body’s mental and physiological processes. Sleep offers the brain a unique chance to sort and prioritise all the information it has amassed during the day: miss out, and mental functioning can decrease twice as fast as physical performance. The impact for elite sportsmen and women, then, is obvious; although an individual may feel physically fit, their ability to recall tactical information and make effective decisions is likely to be seriously impaired by lack of sleep.

Even minimal levels of sleep loss can result in an increased perception of effort; as little as two hours of sleep lost over a 14-day period can reduce cardiovascular performance by up to 11 per cent. Chemically, too, the body relies on sleep as a means of functioning effectively; a lack of it can slow the metabolism of glucose by 30 to 40 per cent, and lead to an increase in levels of cortisol, a stress hormone linked to memory impairment, age-related insulin resistance and stunted recovery. By interfering with tissue growth and repair, cortisol can have huge implications for an injured player on the road to recovery.

Advances in technology, sports science and real-time analysis have sensitised us to what it takes to win, and continue to push the demands on individuals to new heights. And, as levels are raised across the board, so the importance of identifying small and often imperceptible advantages becomes ever more apparent.

It is an approach by no means unique to football. The ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ is central to the ethos of Sir Dave Brailsford, General Manager of Team Sky and former head of British Cycling. For Dave, who I have been lucky enough to work alongside since 2009, the key is to ensure a one per cent gain in ten areas, generating improvements across the board.

It is an increasingly popular weapon in the arsenal of elite sportsmen, women and those charged with analysing their performance. However, it is a process which rests on an athlete’s ability to produce the consistently high levels that allow for the smallest deviations to be detected. Yet sleep— – the natural mental and physical recovery performance tool, and so central to achieving consistency on the field —– is still taken very much for granted.

Slowly, however, things are changing. Southampton, so often at the forefront of pioneering training and recovery techniques, implemented a new programme in December 2013 which was designed to better define the sleep routines of the club’s first team, medical and coaching staff. Individual player profiles, workshops and consultations— – both on-site and at home – —were all part of the package.

Manchester United have now introduced sleep pods— – high-tech personal napping hideouts – —at their newly refurbished Carrington training ground and, in June 2014, Manchester City finished work on a state-of-the-art facility just a stone’s throw from the Etihad stadium. Complete with more than 70 bedroom suites for the first team, academy players and staff, the new centre spells the end of the days when Vincent Kompany et al would pile into the Hilton on the evening before kick-off.

My experience has shown me that, without a defined structure to a player’s Sleep-Wake Routine (SWR), the ability to cope with the myriad pressures of the modern game is severely reduced, and players become increasingly susceptible to stress, anxiety and unproductive sleep recovery habits. If left unaddressed, routines are formed which look to compensate for the lack of high-quality rest time, but which often make it even more difficult to sleep.

The importance of good-quality rest is driven home by Rob Swire, former head physiotherapist at Manchester United: “With sleeping taking up the largest percentage of recovery time, it is even more important that the key staff and players, at all levels, —are able to establish the best techniques, practices and interventions to adopt a more professional approach to sleeping as individuals and as a team.”

His point about individuality is key: some players identify with being able to sleep anywhere, at any time, while others complain of being unable to sleep at all, with the majority falling somewhere in between. The concern today, however, is that greater numbers of players are developing sleep disorders and insomniac characteristics, often driven by counterproductive sleep routines.

To illustrate some of these points, this is the story of one (unnamed) Premiership player I was recruited to work with during the 2013/14 season.

Arriving on the first day of the programme, the player claimed to have no sleeping concerns – not uncommon among young players convinced that they are capable of coping with anything.

After some resistance – —it’s also common to be met with scepticism— – I convinced the player to complete a simple sleep profile questionnaire.

The results were revealing. It was clear that he knew little about his Key Sleep Recovery Performance Indicators, or KSRPIs. Erratic and unstructured in his approach, and lacking a defined SWR, he was unable to identify his chronotype and was unaware of the effect his mattress, pillows or linen might be having on his ability to achieve good-quality sleep.

I began developing a new sleep recovery plan based around a regimented SWR, one of the key KSRPIs, envisaging sleep as a series of 90-minute cycles; this was the first step in helping him to reconsider his random, ‘eight-hours-a-night’ approach to sleep.

He was soon planning his nocturnal sleep subconsciously and beginning to analyse his waking hours in 90-minute cycles – a technique that was particularly effective for napping during the day without fear of negatively impacting on his new SWR.

This was the first step to increasing his sleep awareness, particularly prior to matches. He was now in a position to identify the days on which he needed to apply the optimal SWR, those on which a shorter one was required, and how to balance his routine to ensure his targets were being met.

The next phase was to introduce two simple activities that could be performed in the 90 minutes before bed. The first involved a final intake of food and water to ensure he was fuelled and hydrated; the second required him to shut down any potentially stimulating technology. The reasoning was simple. A clear association between getting into bed and letting go, free from distractions, will allow a natural sleep state to occur on a more regular basis; televisions, laptops or mobile phones are all elements which can impinge on the body’s ability to shut down naturally.

Having armed our player with a new SWR, pre-sleep hydration routine and a schedule for eliminating any technological stimuli, I turned my attention to the bedroom itself. It was here that I would apply solutions to prevent him from waking in the middle of the night, from snoring, and from suffering with common postural aches and pains.

This was about reimagining the bedroom as a “personal sleeping recovery room” – a place to rehabilitate mentally and physically. Crucially, it would be free of clutter and anything that could interfere with the brain’s descent into a natural sleep state.

The obvious place to start was with his sleeping products themselves – his mattress, pillows, duvet and linen. These are products that serve a very real purpose, allowing the body to maintain a natural temperature, providing postural care and ensuring that breathing is not restricted. It soon became apparent, however, that our player’s decisions had been completely arbitrary when it came to choosing them. No surprise, then, that many of the products did not match his sleep profile.

It was upon completion of the first phase of his consultation that our player realised just how little knowledge he had of sleep processes, how well he was sleeping, or the potential benefits of making changes. That was even before we’d discussed the positive effects it could have on his performances and, in the long term, the length of his playing career. It showed great progress for an individual who, just weeks before, had claimed to have no concerns whatsoever when quizzed by his coach and manager.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there. After all, I wouldn’t want you falling asleep.

Nick Littlehales is an international elite recovery and performance coach and consultant, regarded as the world’s leading sleep coach and the founder of
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