Over the past 10 years, sleep has become the secret weapon of more and more Olympic competitors. High-level athletes like Gwen Jorgensen and Melissa Stockwell have been prioritizing quality rest in order to improve their performance and speed up recovery, giving them an edge in the highly competitive world of sports. Ahead of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, we’ve partnered with Sleep Number to share why rest is so important for Olympic medalists, and to offer some tips for how you, too, can snooze like a gold medalist.
To help explain the science, we called on Dr. Mark Rosekind, a sleep specialist who has been researching sleep for decades at companies like NASA and Alertness Solutions. In 2005, Rosekind worked with eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno and the gold medal-winning U.S. men’s volleyball team to help them optimize their sleep.
“A lot of the science has been around for a long time, but people are now realizing that there is something there that can help them,” Rosekind told HuffPost. “As athletics become more and more competitive to where a millisecond can be the difference between a gold and silver medal, everyone is looking for any possible edge they can get — sleep is that edge.”
As Rosekind explained, the interest in sleep among top-level athletes has increased over the past decade even though the benefits of sleep have been known for much longer. Due to the way our society views productivity, sleep has not always been a priority, even for Olympic athletes.
“Our society reinforces that sleep loss equals a badge of courage; you don’t have to sleep so you can get the job done,” said Rosekind. “Yet, all the science says no. You might think that way, but your performance will suffer.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, research has shown that a lack of sleep could increase fatigue, lower energy and even disrupt your ability to focus. Still, while we know the negative effects a lack of sleep can cause, according to Rosekind, we should look at the value sleep can add.
“It really starts with people acknowledging that sleep is like food, water and air,” said Rosekind. “The basic biological need that humans have to have to survive, but you want to go beyond survival. That means you want to optimize your sleep and realize it has value. It’s going to enhance your performance, safety and mood.”
In order to optimize sleep for athletes at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Camp in 2005, Rosekind started by improving the environment with things like blackout curtains, white noise machines and dawn simulator alarm clocks.
Rosekind also helped the athletes deal with issues such as jet lag, by working with them to develop a nightly routine. He created a list of pre-bed tasks for the athletes to follow so they could train their bodies to start relaxing before bedtime no matter where they were.
“You need to do things that are conducive to falling asleep,” said Rosekind. “It can be taking a bath and reading a book, or getting in your pajamas. You also don’t want caffeine or heavy exercise within a few hours of bed.”
Gwen Jorgensen, who took home a gold medal after winning the triathlon in Rio in 2016, shared with HuffPost that she has a regular bedtime routine, in which she gets eight to 10 hours of rest so she is refreshed and ready to perform at her best.
Rosekind suggests that everyone, not just Olympic athletes, work on making their environment sleep-friendly, in addition to creating a pre-bed routine. He also recommends tracking your sleep since many of us make incorrect estimates regarding the quality and amount of sleep we actually get each night.
“The development of sleep tracking has been a huge benefit for people, especially athletes, for understanding and optimizing their personal sleep needs,” he said. “In athletics, it is all about measurement, how fast you can do this, how high you can do that. Sleep is just one more factor that we can measure.”
Rosekind hopes society will follow the lead of these Olympic athletes and start to recognize the immense benefits a good night’s sleep can have, not only on our performance, but on our overall well-being.
“One of the quotes from Apolo that I love is, ‘You can only train as hard as you can recover,’ and that is all about the sleep,” said Rosekind. “There is no question you can measure the benefits of sleep, and not just in gold medals.”
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