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Why getting enough sleep can make the difference between winning and losing

Volunteers walk by giant welcome murals near the entrance to Olympic Park at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Figure skater Jeremy Abbott can be forgiven if he chuckled at the headlines when the athletes quarters were unveiled in Sochi, Russia, this week: "Canada's millionaire hockey players to sleep in tiny beds."

A long-time insomniac, the reigning U.S. champion knows too well how difficult it can be to nod off on an Olympic-sized single. This time, he came prepared.

"I brought a queen-sized air mattress," he told NBC News, even though it weighs more than 11 kilograms and took up an entire suitcase. "I did not do well on the twin bed in Vancouver."

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A medal contender in 2010, he wound up ninth, a disappointment he blames, in large part, on his inability to sleep.

The "millionaires" have played down the prospect of living in cramped quarters that Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban called "interesting" before joking about how he snores.

But sleep deprivation is a growing problem across the social spectrum. A recent survey showed that clinically significant insomnia affects 10 to 20 per cent of North Americans, making them less productive workers and causing health problems that range from irritability to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Even more dire, and increasingly common, obstructive sleep apnea interrupts the breath of those who doze off and, according to a 2011 U.S. study, is linked to "a significantly increased risk of sudden cardiac death."

Lack of rest is such a hot topic that this week Apple was rumoured to have recruited a leading sleep expert to work on its much-anticipated (and highly secret) iWatch. Among its many features, the digital "smartwatch" is expected to track an owner's sleeping habits and offer advice on how to improve them.

For elite athletes, problems with maintaining a routine are often magnified. To train and compete, many must travel the globe and, despite having to leapfrog time zones, be at their best when the moment of truth arrives.

But how important is rest to people with physical abilities so superior to the rest of us?

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Athletic officials are beginning to take that question very seriously, with Canada's Olympic program the first in the world to assess and manage the rest and recovery habits of its athletes.

On the southern outskirts of Calgary, next to a row of office buildings, there is a little medical centre with four bedrooms and a waiting list to get in. A sign in the office of the man in charge reads, "Damn, I'm good in bed. I can sleep for hours."

That expertise is what draws insomniacs from police officers, pilots and flight attendants to nurses and shift workers of all stripes to Dr. Charles Samuels and the Calgary Centre for Sleep and Human Performance.

The patient list also includes Canadian medal hopefuls because Own The Podium, the largely government-funded Olympic program, has come to appreciate the role of sleep in preparing for international competition.

"Quite frankly," Dr. Samuels says, "we're the only country in the world that has a structured evaluation of sleep for all its elite athletes in the Olympic system, paralympic and abled-bodied – that exceeds a thousand athletes."

Having gathered Olympic data since 2007, he has helped to put Canada at the leading edge, and now travels the world lecturing on the power of positive sleeping.

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"By working with athletes, we're working with a select population that we believe should be healthy and able to do everything normally," Dr. Samuels says. "And interestingly, no, that is not the case."

It's not that athletes suffer more from sleep disorders than the general public – the issue is more what happens when their problems are solved.

"My focus is on the long-term management of their sleep as a tool for recovery," Dr. Samuels says, explaining that there are only three other such tools: nutrition, hydration and being immersed in cold water.

"The athletes are wonderful because they say, 'I didn't realize what I was doing negatively affected my sleep, and I didn't know what the benefit would be once I paid attention to this.' "

Some with problems end up at the Sleep Centre for closer observation. To monitor heart rate and brain activity, they have no fewer than 27 electrodes attached. Meanwhile, cameras record even the strangest moments, such as the test subject who got up and began tidying his room before saying, "Everything's fine now" and returning to bed. He was asleep the entire time.

Dr. Samuels knows personally what fatigue can do – it's what sparked his interest in sleep.

When he was a rural family physician based in Vulcan, a small town southwest of Calgary, he routinely worked a full week and would be on call around the clock. He returned from one early-morning call so drowsy that he drove right past his house. When he finally snapped to attention, his front wheels were in Lake McGregor – almost an hour from home. "I had no idea where I was," he says. "It was fascinating."

That fascination led him to focus on the subject and later cross paths with University of Calgary kinesiologist David Smith, who insisted that sleep was important to an athlete's recovery and performance. Curious to learn more, and having moved to the city, Dr. Samuels started by taking on athletes from Speed Skating Canada.

To solve problems requires identifying them. The Sleep Centre asks athletes to fill out a detailed questionnaire about their sleep habits and then rate them on how they feel afterward, from exhausted to refreshed. Data is collected quarterly, which allows a comparison of training, competition and rest periods for patterns. Dr. Samuels says that taking athletes "backwards to their teenage years" has shown that some got by on five hours of sleep. By their 20s, they were suffering from "extreme over-exertion and under-recovery," and had built up a massive sleep debt.

In contrast, the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family has found a similar pattern among older people in the population at large. Its 2013 study Counting Sheep cites research showing that "time-stressed" Canadians aged 35 to 44 sleep on average the least (seven hours and 57 minutes a night), and calls this "a costly practice in terms of our health and well-being."

With athletes, the emphasis on rest is to help them recover, both from musclar and mental exertion, more rapidly – a valued asset where the difference between winning and losing can be measured in fractions of a second.

The cross-country ski team has embraced the sleep-to-win approach. "For our training plan, we put 60 to 70 per cent [of the time] into recovery and that includes naps and sleeping," head coach Justin Wadsworth says.

"If the athletes don't get that, they break down and can't compete day in, day out."

Naturally, tactics can differ from one event, and one individual, to the next. Some competitors are told to alter their sleep and training hours when events are in different time zones. Most are asked to nap every afternoon between 2 and 4 – but for no more than 30 minutes. (Any longer can leave them feeling sluggish.)

To guarantee that their charges have enough downtime, team officials are resorting to unusual measures. Australia recently made headlines by imposing a partial ban on social media at Sochi. The main objective was to reduce distraction, but Canadian athletes know that the smartphones, iPads and laptops that connect them to Twitter and Facebook can also raise their heart rates.

"It's the interaction with the device, which deals with the wiring of the brain," Dr. Samuels says. "The other is the effect of light emitted off the screen on a tablet, computer or phone. It has been shown to affect physiology."

As a result, Mr. Wadsworth says, his team has a rule: "no video or computers past 9 p.m. Athletes say they can shut off their computer and fall asleep, but they're not getting the quality of sleep they need for their recovery."

The silver solution

So does all this emphasis on rest make much of a difference?

Former Olympic bobsledder Helen Upperton certainly thinks so. She visited Dr. Samuels after finishing fourth at Turin in 2006, determined to leave nothing to chance with the next Games being held at home.

A night owl, she had tried everything she could think of to go to bed earlier, only to fill out her questionnaire and still be stunned at how little she slept.

To help her settle down at night, she was advised to avoid emotional, in-depth conversation after dinner and not to go on the computer after 8 p.m. Changing her habits took time but paid off in the end: She and doubles partner Shelley-Ann Brown took the silver medal in 2010.

"I got more rest at the Olympic Village," recalls Ms. Upperton, who now works for WinSport, Calgary's winter sports institute. "I was really confident and ready for the competition."

It is difficult to know just how big a difference sleep can make, but she feels the connection is clear: "In an Olympic year, everyone is at their best. … Usually the difference between who gets a medal and who doesn't is who has had the most rest."

Skeleton racer Jon Montgomery, famous for taking gold in 2010 and celebrating in the streets with a pitcher of beer, agrees that it's easy to get carried away.

"It is very exciting … but all that stimulus has the potential to run you down," says the native of Russell, Man., who isn't competing in Sochi. "Make sure you are rested and prepared to be your best when it matters most."

With that in mind, the Canadian women's hockey team left almost three weeks ahead of the opening ceremonies to prepare in Austria – like Sochi, an 11-hour time difference from its base in Calgary.

"That's a big change," says long-time star Danielle Goyette, now an assistant coach. "It takes a day to recover for every hour you lose. We struggled in the first couple of days. Now, it's no problem at all."

The men's team doesn't leave for Europe until Sunday and, although used to crisscrossing the continent, professionals need sleep like the rest of us.

"A pitcher in baseball has a pitch count; in hockey, it's … all about managing time," says Terry Kane, an orthopedic physical therapist who has worked for the Calgary Flames as well as Canada's Olympic teams.

"You can't give a player who plays 10 minutes per game more ice time and expect the same results. Fatigue is the biggest enemy of pro sports."

Not that a good night's sleep can overcome all obstacles.

Despite bringing along his big bed, Jeremy Abbott opened with a dismal performance. He fell on one jump, missed two others and left many observers afraid that he had cost his team a shot at a medal.

How to nod off

Set times for bed and waking up: Experts say to not let yourself "drift." Stick to the schedule since the body becomes trained to falling asleep at a certain time.

If you must nap … Keep it short, no more than 30 minutes. Naps should be taken at a fixed time. Best between 2 and 4 p.m.

Walk away from the cellphone: Interplay with technology – using smartphones, iPads, tablets, computers – enlivens the brain and affects the heart rate.

Ingestion suggestion: No excessive alcohol, tobacco or caffeine consumption just before bed. That last cup of coffee should come six hours before going to sleep. It also won't hurt to stay clear of late-night spicy or sugary foods.

Be smart about exercise: Exercise regularly but not right before bed. And don't get up at 4 a.m. to exercise. Train on a rested body.

Sources: Canadian Sleep Society; Centre for Sleep and Human Performance

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More

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