Sleep seems like a simple thing to do: You go to bed at night and you get up in the morning.
But when a good night's sleep can make the difference between a gold or bronze medal, a good night's sleep takes on a whole new level of importance.
U.S. athletes competing in the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy have dedicated years of their life working toward a gold medal, and part of their training included improving their sleep quality. To give athletes an extra edge in Torino, officials at the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., brought in Mark Rosekind, PhD, president of Alertness Solutions and a former NASA scientist, to evaluate the athletes’ sleeping conditions. From lighting to beds to alarm clocks, Rosekind made changes that, while seemingly simple, were designed to optimize Team USA's preparations for Torino.
“We know that sleep loss [creates] significant detriments in performance,” said Rosekind. “There are lab studies that show that if you’re an eight-hour sleeper and you get six hours of sleep, that two-hour difference can impact your performance so that it equates to how you would perform if you had a 0.05 blood-alcohol level.”
World-class athletes competing in the Olympics obviously need their sleep if they’re going to bring home the gold. For those of us who can only dream of speed skating and downhill ski courses called the Super G, counting sheep is just as important -- even if there isn't a medal when we wake up.
Optimum Sleep Environment
Rosekind said his first task was to tweak the athletes sleeping environment.
“First, we looked at environmental factors for the room, for example, light, temperature, and noise,” says Rosekind, who is a board member for the National Sleep Foundation.
Light involves the use of blackout curtains, Rosekind said, to keep the room sufficiently dark. However, the room could not be too dark to pose an injury risk for athletes stumbling around in the middle of the night. A figure skater can't stub her toe while trying to find the bathroom.
“Temperature-wise, cool is better than warm,” Rosekind explained. “You need to have some kind of accurate control, like a thermostat, or have things like extra blankets so you can control the temperature during the night.”
Noise Control and Comfortable Beds
Noise is another factor that can have an impact on sleep, and Rosekind set about making sure athletes were sleeping in the proper quiet.
“With noise, what most people need to know is that it’s the intrusive noise events, like doors banging, that are the most disruptive for peoples’ sleep,” Rosekind said. This problem, however, is easily solved by masking the intrusive sounds with background noise, like a fan or sound machine.
Next, Rosekind tackled the beds.
“The second big area had to do with the beds and personal comfort,” said Rosekind. “With the Olympic program, the training rooms originally had twin beds, which you can imagine for some athletes could be a problem.”
Out went the tiny twins and in came full size plush-top mattresses and box springs with extra pillows (some of which were hypoallergenic), cotton sheets, and blankets -- all an easy fix for athletes who were simply too big for their own beds.
Finally, Rosekind considered the other end of the spectrum -- waking up. For athletes who tend to burn the Olympic torch at both ends, a reliable alarm clock is essential.
“The third thing which is so often overlooked is an alarm clock,” said Rosekind. “Hilton [Hotel] has a new alarm clock that you can trust to go off and it's easy to operate.”
Taking Care of the 'Extras'
After making major changes to the sleep environment at the Olympic Training Center, which was actually a Hilton Hotel, Rosekind looked at amenities in the athletes’ rooms that affect sleep.
“The extra things we looked at were lighting in the room, like a floor lamp and desk lamp, and a very comfortable desk chair,” said Rosekind. He said a comfortable chair reminds people to work at their desk, not in their bed.
Sleep is a critical factor in ensuring Olympians stay at the top of their game, and the changes Rosekind made, he said, improved their ability to fall asleep, sleep well, and wake up rested.
“Not only do athletes need sleep to improve on their athletic skills, but the restoration that occurs within muscles during deep sleep is important,” said Sara Mednick, PhD, a sleep researcher at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “If you don’t get enough sleep it can be detrimental to your performance.”
Did the sleep-friendly changes Rosekind made to their rooms result in improved sleep or performance for the athletes?
Rosekind said speed skater Apolo Ohno, whose room was first to be renovated, had been pleased with the results while training at the facility.
“After the first couple of nights he was already saying that he could feel a difference, not only a good night’s sleep but how it was affecting his performance. When all the other athletes saw his room, they wanted to know when their's was being done because it was going to translate into a performance difference for them.”
But the effect the environmental improvements had on athletes' sleep or performance, Rosekind admitted, was difficult to measure or quantify.
“We know optimal sleep translates into optimal performance,” Rosekind said. “Given the amount of ‘measurement’ that Olympic athletes undergo, it became clear that an independent and focused evaluation on just the sleep changes was not going to be possible. However, there is no question that improving sleep will lead to enhanced performance,” he said.
Sleep Like an Olympian
While Olympic athletes had the benefit of a professional sleep expert to redesign their rooms for optimal slumber, the question is, how does the average person sleep like an Olympic athlete?
“Eight hours of sleep is the standard,” said Mednick. “There is a range, but 7.5 to eight hours of sleep is the optimal amount.”
The rules Rosekind applied to redesigning the athletes room apply as well: low light, cool temperatures and minimal background noise.
“Sleeping in low light is important,” Mednick said. “You need the hormone melatonin to sleep, and melatonin is only released under low-light conditions.”
Cool temperatures, as Rosekind arranged for the athletes, are just as important for those of us watching the Winter Games from our couch.
“The room temperature needs to be on the cooler side,” said Daniel McNally, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center. “Your body temperature tracks your circadian rhythm, so as night begins, your body temperature falls and it reaches a minimum right after you go to bed. If you are in an environment where you can’t lose body heat, for instance if it’s hot and humid, you won’t sleep well.”
And while most of us love to hit it, stay away from the ever-popular snooze button.
“Snooze alarms are the enemy of good sleep,” said McNally. “It feels better, but it’s not good in terms of keeping your internal circadian clock strong so your brain knows when it should sleep, and when it should get up.”
The Impact of Alcohol
Alcohol is another no-no when it comes to sleeping like an Olympian. We may think a glass of wine will knock us out, but experts say that's not the case.
“It makes you sleepy at first, but then as your alcohol levels fall, your sleep is more disrupted and fragmented then normal,” McNally said. “It makes things worse rather than better.”
“You’re going to be sluggish, not have enough energy, and have an irritable mood,” said Mednick. “It’s difficult to stay focused and make decisions because your body is not in its optimal state.”
Personalize Your Sleep
The art of sleep, while a crucial part of sports performance and everyday life, can be easy.
“I use to work at NASA so I can say this, but this is not rocket science,” Rosekind said. “It’s kind of amazing that this is not high-level stuff, but most people have not evaluated their own sleep environment, even though they spend a third of their lives asleep.”
When it comes to catching Zzz’s, the key to sleep is to optimize your sleep environment, but also go with what works for you.
“You need to control and create a sleep environment that is personally the most comfortable for you,” said Rosekind. “You want your sleep surface and the accouterments, like pillows, blankets, etc., to be as comfortable as possible for you.”
By Heather Hatfield, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Daniel McNally, MD, director, Sleep Disorders Center, University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, Conn., Sara Mednick, PhD, sleep researcher, Salk Institute, La Jolla, Calif. Mark Rosekind, PhD, president, Alertness Solutions; board member, National Sleep Foundation; Cupertino, Calif.