Elite Sleep: How ParalympicsGB Achieve Maximum Snooze

9 Min Read | By Liam Porter

Last Modified 20 December 2022   First Added 5 July 2021

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

Dreams are proud to be exploring this topic as the Official Sleep Partner of the British Paralympic Association/ParalympicsGB. Learn more about this partnership in our ParalympicsGB hub.

Athletes need to travel a lot, as they compete in various competitions in different cities, countries, and continents. Travelling can sometimes be detrimental to sleep, with naps taken in uncomfortable places, and new environments to settle into. As sleep is important for an athlete’s energy levels and their ability to recover after an event or training sessions, it’s vital that they can sleep well – whether in a new hotel room or on the road. We spoke to some of the ParalympicsGB team about the importance of sleep for athletes and how to get a good night’s rest before an important day.

Dr Tom Paulson and Michael Hutchinson from the ParalympicsGB performance team gave us an insight into how they prepare the athletes to compete.

What is the optimum sleep environment for the night before a competition?

Tom: So, I think for the night before the competition, the sleep environment should really mirror what an athlete would normally have in their usual recommended environment. We obviously want athletes to be as comfortable as possible wherever they’re sleeping and staying.

So, that would include ensuring they have things like a dark room, blackout, no distractions of lights, and recommendations around limiting screen time. This helps to reduce any kind of cognitive stimulus or create any awake habits, because a lot of sleep is dictated by light.

Tom: You want people to be in a darkened environment and getting ready for sleep as they normally would. We know that sleep is quite an important contributing factor for performance. Small amounts of sleep blocks and having disturbed sleep when in new environments is quite normal. So, when athletes are often away, in hotels, they might sleep poorly for a couple of nights. Short term sleep disruption isn’t that influential on performance, but when it is chronic over a period of time, it can significantly influence in athletes, both in recovery from training and build-up into competition.

We recommend athletes have a similar sleep environment as when they’re at home. That includes maybe taking a pillow that they find comfortable, having a mattress topper that they know is going to be comfortable, and having other items associated with sleep that they would have at home, like photographs of family, or friends or music or anything like that to try and replicate the environment as best as possible.

How much of a contributing factor is sleep to an athlete’s overall performance, and why?

Tom: In terms of athletes sleep and performance, we know that disrupted sleep can affect concentration, and cognition when it’s over a prolonged period of time. There’s also an influence of stress and the hormone response when people aren’t having the ability to rest as much as they should. So, I think if you look at an athlete as a whole, the more they can sleep and have a regular sleep routine that’s consistent throughout training and competition, will mean their bodies are in the best shape possible. That complements things like nutrition and training, but sleep is such an integral part of human performance and plays a really significant part in an athlete’s day. Because of this, they will probably spend more time sleeping and resting than they would do whilst training. It’s a fundamental element of the day that they need to protect.

How important is rest for recovery vs nutrition or physical conditioning?

Michael: I think that a point to emphasise is that how all these things will interact with each other. And well, all are important in their own way, and it’s not necessarily a factor of one being more important than another. Having each element helps the athletes approach an appropriate amount of focus in making sure that they will kind of optimised in the right way. They will all contribute significantly to the ultimate performance. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that all of those pieces are in place and that the athlete is familiar with the routine.

While Tom and Michael can clearly define what creates good sleep habits and environments, the responsibility of getting the most out of their sleep rests with the athletes.  

Paralympic powerlifter, Ali Jawad, gave us a first-person account of how he balances a good sleep routine with a heavy training schedule.

From bedtime routines to changing sleeping when travelling and plenty more, Ali’s advice makes for worthy listening whether or not you plan to compete at the highest of sporting levels. With Ali, it seems that consistency is key for high-quality and regular sleep.

How does your sleep schedule change when in the Paralympic Village and away from home?

Ali: As athletes, you try and keep things as normal as possible. Sleep is a really important part of my schedule, as it allows me to recover, and that’s where all the adaptation actually occurs. So, it’s really important when we do go away, that my sleep is unaffected. Even if I have to bring my own pillow or a mattress cover, anything like that to make my sleep more manageable abroad, I do it. Sleep is definitely a priority for me and a big deal when I travel.

Whether away from home or not, do you take time out of your day to nap if you can? If so, when is the best time?

Ali: Personally, I don’t nap as it means I can’t sleep in the evening. In the past, I’ve tried it, but I actually felt worse for it. For me, I’d rather get my sleep in the evening, but I know other athletes swear by it – it’s individual for everyone really.

Do you have a hack or trick to get yourself to sleep quickly?

Ali: I’m actually quite lucky, because my schedule is that regimented that I’m so used to it, and I can fall asleep like ‘that’. When it gets to about 9/10 o’clock, I know I’m tired. I don’t have much energy in the evening, so once it gets to that time, I’ll be able to sleep. It has taken years to do it because your schedule is so regimented and your training times are set, it’s like your body knows when to get tired so it can sleep. So, I would say my body is programmed to sleep at those times!

And would you say that sleep is affected at all the night before a competition? Do nerves disrupt your bedtime routine? Do you go to bed earlier?

Ali: No, I’m someone who doesn’t really get nervous, because I’m a seasoned pro and I know what to expect. When I was younger, I was probably a lot more nervous than I am now, but with all the experiences that I’ve had, I know what I’ve done to get to the competition, and I just have to trust in what I’ve done to get there.

So, the night before a competition, I actually sleep well, because I have to. Competition day is really important, and sleep has to be the same. There was one competition, my first World Championships where I was about 17, I was so nervous the night before, I woke up and didn’t see the clock, went down to the lobby and it was the 3AM in the morning! And I just thought ‘oh no, I don’t have to be up until 9’ – I was downstairs in the lobby for 6 hours. So that’s not good prep! And I learnt from that.

What bedroom comforts do you have, especially when training?

Ali: So, before bed, I like to read about an hour before. I try not to watch TV or go on my phone, as it’s my hour where I can learn. Because my day is so action-packed, that hour before bed is the best time to learn something. At the moment, I’m doing a PHD, so I might read an article that relates to that or a chapter of a book. It also gets you off to sleep as it’s not as stimulating as watching the TV.

Why should you choose to sleep like a pro?

Whether or not you’re training for a competitive environment like the Olympic Games, there’s plenty to learn from the sleep routines and habits of those who are. Over at News In Health, sleep expert Dr Michael Twery identifies how wide-ranging the effects of sleep are.

Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies. It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health.

News in Health go on to explain how poor sleep has just as large an impact too. This time, in the opposite direction.

Research shows that lack of sleep increases the risk for obesity, heart disease and infections. Throughout the night, your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure rise and fall, a process that may be important for cardiovascular health. Your body releases hormones during sleep that help repair cells and control the body’s use of energy. These hormone changes can affect your body weight.

Clearly, anything that can help us achieve better sleep is worth a go. The advice given by the likes of Dr. Tom and Michael, and the examples set by athletes like Ali, is advice worth following. So, remember:

  • Implement and stick to routines
  • Ensure wherever you sleep replicates your home environment as closely as possible
  • Sleep environments are usually best when dark and cool with low risk of stimulation from screens and other blue-light emitters
  • Good sleep is only achieved through consistent and mindful practising

It’s clear that to compete at the Games, you must take your sleep seriously. It’s just as important as nutrition and training. For more on how to optimise your sleep for a healthier lifestyle, visit our Sleep Matters Club.

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