For many athletes, sleep quality varies based on training phase, travel schedule, diet, performance competition outcomes, etc. Sleep disturbances on a short term basis can typically be managed, and the effects on performance may be minimal. Chronic sleep disturbances however, can be very problematic for an athlete, effecting performance, recovery and overall health. Higher level athletes who are required to travel frequently for competitions are the most susceptible to sleep problems. Time zone changes, travel stress, unfamiliar sleep conditions, early wake-ups, late arrivals and so forth are all potential contributors to a night of poor sleep. Some athletes are even forced to get as much sleep as possible on the bus or plane when they have consecutive matches in different locations. The importance of sleep quality is generally understood by most coaches, however monitoring sleep quality and making practical, effective interventions to improve sleep quality is an area that requires further research to inform practice.
A new study published ahead of print in the Journal of Sport Sciences assessed sleep quality and intervention effectiveness in 107 professional ice hockey players. The first part of the study evaluated the prevalence of sleep disorders while the second part evaluated the effectiveness of intervention strategies for improving sleep quality. The results showed that 22% of the subjects experienced sleep disturbances during the offseason while nearly half (46%) of subjects reported sleep disturbances during the competitive season. About 4% used a sleeping aid (i.e., medication or supplement) during the offseason while 17% used them during the competitive season.
The hockey players were then provided counselling regarding developing a normal sleep routine. The strategies provided to the athletes included reducing forms of excitement/adrenaline in the evening which included limiting blue-light exposure from smartphones and tablets. They were told to limit large fatty meals before bed and to limit caffeine consumption in the evenings. It was recommended that they limit their naps to 30 minutes. For specific sleep conditions such as insomnia or restless leg syndrome, the athletes were counselled on supplementation (i.e., melatonin), cold water treatment and pre-bed stretching. After 1-year, the athletes were surveyed on how implementing these strategies impacted their perceived sleep quality. 83% of the athletes reported an improvement in sleep quality. Overall, these results demonstrate that there is a high prevalence of poor sleep quality in professional athletes, particularly during the competitive season. In addition, this study demonstrates that counselling the athletes on developing healthy sleep routines is an effective strategy for improving sleep quality.
Tuomilehtoab, H. (2016) Sleep of professional athletes: Underexploited potential to improve health and performance. Journal of Sport Sciences. (Ahead of Print).