Sleep is an important process for recovery and performance in athletes and non-athletes. But how much do you really need? And how can you optimise sleep?
About the author
Ian is the Director of Melius Consulting, Sleep4Performance, Host of Sleep4Performance Radio, Sleep Consultant for Power, Speed & Endurance (PSE) and member of the PSE coaches network. Ian consults to the mining, oil and gas industry in relation to fatigue risk management, shift work and productivity and works with elite level athletes. He has worked with athletes in sports such as rugby union, swimming, kayaking, basketball, judo, boxing and mixed martial arts to help them optimise sleep.
Ian is quite the athlete himself having completed over 20 mountain ultra-marathons including the Leadville 100 in the Colorado Rockies. He is also a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt! So he understands what it takes to be an athlete from both his own experiences and his research.
In recent years, numerous podcasts, news stories and scientific articles have been released to communicate the details of sleep in different athletic populations and the importance of sleep to enable performance.
So why is it that many people neglect sleep or just don’t get enough?
Recent statistics from the Sleep Health Foundation in Australia in conjunction with Deloitte Access Economics reported that 1 in 3 people do not get enough sleep . As a society, we should be aiming to achieve 7-9 hours per night. One of the main factors contributing to this lack of sleep is that 1 in 5 people have a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders or sleep problems will affect the quantity and quality of your sleep, thereby reducing the efficiency of the sleeping time. There are currently over 80 sleep disorders recognised by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine  resulting in $18bn of lost productivity per year or $2,500 per person.
Another factor is the societal and cultural approach to exercise and fitness, particularly with high achievers and athletes. Too many people are advocating early morning starts (just like Rocky before 05:00 am) in order to get their workouts done or even to catch up on emails. So, while most of us need to go to work or are trying to carve out time before children are awake, we need to ensure that we are bringing balance to our training. Such early morning starts will truncate our sleep duration. If we exercise at this time, then to achieve 7-9 hrs per night, we will need to be in bed at 20:30 the night before, at the latest. This will allow for 10-20 minutes to fall asleep, followed by 8-hrs in bed for sleep. That will most likely result in 90% of sleep efficiency or approx 7-8-hrs as we all wake throughout the night (WASO: Wake after sleep onset) which results in a reduction in total sleep duration.
Dr Ian Dunican has worked with top-level physiologists who specialise in recovery with elite and Olympic athletes. He states that they always advocate that sleep for recovery is the number one modality. Dr Dunican states that sleep should be prioritised to support subsequent performance. Therefore, these early morning training <05:00 am truncate your opportunity for sleep and will reduce the time spent in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is important for next day cognitive performance and decision making. If you are an amateur athlete that also works and has a family, then dividing your training sessions may be appropriate for you. Maybe consider a lunchtime high-intensity session to augment your training or extending your evening training session. “Rise and Grind” may be replaced by “Sleep in, and Win”.
Train for sleep deprivation?
Some people get by on 4-5 hrs sleep a night, can’t I just train myself to do this?
The short answer is no, the vast majority of the population require 7-9 hrs per night. In a recent interview Prof Matthew Walker on the Joe Rogan Experience said “When you look at the number of people that sleep less than 5 hrs per night, there is a small fraction of <1% of the population, that has a certain gene that allows them to survive on 5 hrs of sleep”. So, whilst some people may be only getting 5 hrs and they might be functioning from day to day, they are most likely not achieving their optimal performance.
But what about people like Winston Churchill, Einstein etc, they didn’t sleep much?
Yes, they slept unorthodox hours and even slept a low number of hours overnight (4-6 hrs). However, they did nap at least once a day and sometimes twice. Dr Dunican has worked with business leaders, coaches, athletes and the general population (more than 4,000 people) and he said he has not observed anyone who functions or competes at the highest levels on less than 6-hrs per night. People who say that they only need 6-hrs a night tend to have short naps during the day or in some cases experience microsleeps at their desks or when sitting down that they are unaware of their occurrence. What is of interest is when “short sleepers” are provided with an uninterrupted period of time in bed to maximise sleep, they tend to achieve 8-hrs of sleep.
If you are an athlete, non-athlete, business leader or an individual looking to optimise your day, then the cheapest, most effective solution may lie within your sleep…pun intended.
- Robert Adams SA, Anne Taylor, Doug McEvoy, and Nick Antic. Report to the Sleep Health Foundation 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults. Sleep Health Foundation: The University of Adelaide:The Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health2016.
- Berry RB BR, Gamaldo CE, Harding SM, Lloyd RM, Marcus CL and Vaughn BV. Academy of Sleep Medicine. The AASM Manual for the Scoring of Sleep and Associated Events: Rules, Terminology and Technical Specications V2.2. Darien, Illinois: American Academy of Sleep Medicine; 2015.