By Ciaran O’Regan – Sport Scientist and Coach.
This is not going to be a massively Science heavy piece that looks to delve into the literature around sleep—Ian already provides tons of awesome content on that side (Note from Ian: Thanks Ciaran). Given my experience as a coach who has worked with hundreds of athletes and non-athletes over the years, I feel a more useful contribution might be to focus on practical takeaways for coaches who wish to influence the people with whom they work. For the sake of ease, I will refer to the people we work with as “clients” as an umbrella term.
What I aim to touch on here are bits and pieces I have encountered and also anecdotally found to be useful when it comes to both building client awareness of the impact of sleep on their physical and mental performance and assisting them with implementing positive changes.
Let us begin.
Bringing up the topic of sleep early in the coaching process is huge to me and lines of questioning on the topic are part of my consultation and/or fact-finding approach with pretty much every prospective or new client. This serves multiple obvious functions:
- It can help raise awareness in the client as to the importance of sleep simply due to it being asked about.
- It lets me know if sleep is a low hanging fruit that needs to be targeted for this person before focusing on more complex or advanced lifestyle factors
- It aids in sharing responsibility with the client regards their own progress. For example, if the topic of sleep comes up and a client is unwilling to address their insufficiency in terms of quality and/or quantity, it allows me to highlight to the client (who may be expecting miracles from the coaching process) that a lack of sufficient sleep can be a huge performance bottleneck and that until they address this they will be likely be facing an uphill climb toward whatever their goals are. A prime archetypal example of a client here that I have often encountered who can initially refuse to sleep more despite a glaring inadequacy, are the white-collar professional types who train two to three times a day for Ironmen triathlons whilst running a company and juggling a family with a wife, 2.5 kids, and a dog.
Targeted Education Around Sleep Benefits
Some clients will take your word for it and just start implementing changes, others won’t. For the resistant ones, I think basic education can play an important role. What we focus on education wise with each client, however, will depend on what the goals of the individual are. Essentially, depending on the situation, we can tailor our education to suit the person’s frame of reference. For example:
- Fat loss people may be more interested in the affects of poor sleep on appetite regulation, insulin sensitivity, and decision-making. For them, it might be useful to plant a seed by showing them a study like Spiegal et al (2004) as it showed the restricted sleep group in comparison to the prolonged sleep group to have an 18% decrease in leptin (this increases hunger), a 28% increase in Ghrelin (this increases hunger), a 24% increase in general hunger, and a 32% increase in desire to eat highly processed Calorie dense foods.
- Athletes may be more interested in the impact of sleep on recovery from training and mental/physical performance. For this population it may be more useful to show them a study like Mah et al (2011). Mah et al (2011) was a Stanford University study that found (a) faster sprint times (b) a 9% increase in free throw performance and (c) Faster reaction times in Collegiate Basketball players who spent at least 10 hours in bed compared to their normal sleep schedule of 6-9 hours.
- Longevity focused clients may be interested in the impact of sleep on long-term cognitive health. For them, it might be worth highlighting a study like Shokri-Kojori et al (2018) that showed even a single night of inadequate sleep to lead to an increase in beta-amyloid plaque in the brain which is a protein whose build up is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
General Sleep Hygiene Education
Once a person is up for addressing their sleep, there are some practical things we can coach on to make increased sleep quality and/or quantity easier. Here are a few bits I have picked up over the years from various sources and found to be hugely useful for both myself, and my clients:
- Have a wind down routine at night in the lead in to sleeping.
- Beware of the impact of blue lights rays from technology and try avoiding screens in the 60+ minutes before bed. Consider (a) darkening your screens in the evening (b) setting your phone alarm early in the evening before putting it on airplane mode and out of reach (c) not having screens as part of your wind down routine before bed and instead reading books or simply socializing.
- Beware of the 4-6-hour half-life of caffeine and try to avoid consuming coffee or caffeinated drinks in the 8-10 hours before expected bedtime. This is especially relevant to athletes who may consume caffeine in evening before training. For example, if you consume 250mg of caffeine at 12pm (a not uncommon cup of strong coffee), the half life of it means that 6 hours later at 4pm there could still be 125mg in your body, and at 10pm when you might be trying to sleep there could still be 62.5mg floating about in your body. Imagine if you had the same cup at 4pm and were hoping to sleep by 10pm?
- If you are someone who finds yourself trying to sleep but lying there thinking about all the things you need to address, consider keeping a notepad by the bed to brain dump all your thoughts. I learned this one from former UFC Champion Forrest Griffin in his hilarious and insightful book “Got Fight?” This exercise can: (a) Allow you to more objectively view information as once the thoughts are on the page rather than swimming around in your head, things can present themselves as much clearer and objectively manageable. (b) Allow you to relax and wind down in the knowledge that the important things you need to do can’t be forgotten as they are now written down and as such can be worried about the next day.
- Be conscious of the training proximity to bedtime as it can sometimes make it a bit harder to get to sleep if of a very intense nature. This is especially the case if intense training late in the evening is not something one normally does, and they are used to training earlier in the day.
- Be conscious of the impact of alcohol and cannabis on sleep quality.
At Sigma Nutrition we generally inquire every week in a systemized manner about sleep. I can’t speak for my colleagues at Sigma, but for most clients I personally work with we track sleep on both a daily basis and a weekly basis. We track daily by having estimated sleep hours on our daily tracker on Google sheets along with whatever other variables are suitable for them at that time (such as Calories, protein, morning weight etc.). And we inquire on a weekly basis by having a question about sleep on our weekly check in mails so that we get an overall viewpoint from the client. These regular points of contact around sleep provide three primary benefits in my mind:
- They regularly remind the clients about the importance of sleep which both encourages them to take it seriously and also puts the ball in their court in having a sense of personal responsibility for their lifestyle management.
- It provides invaluable feedback to us as coaches because it can shed light regarding what the physical state of the client may have been regarding their ability to recover from training or also to be able to perform well in sessions. For some clients, I have also found disrupted sleep to result in quite dramatic water retention. This can be a very beneficial thing to know when working with fighters or other weight class athletes.
- It also provides potentially useful information around basic physical health and wellbeing as sleep disturbances can anecdotally act as a proxy indication for allostatic load issues. This is because I have found disrupted sleep to possibly act as a potential sign of overtraining taking place or even a general high stress load being placed on the client from sources outside of sport. Essentially, sleep disturbances can be a handy warning sign for us as coaches or individuals.
*NB: A caveat here to highlight, is that we do not do this on the tracker with every client. Some clients are quite knowledgeable and experienced and thus have their lifestyle management around sleep seriously dialed in.
Situations in which a client is fatigued or under performing can potentially serve as a useful opportunity to ask a few carefully phrased questions around sleep and other lifestyle factors which may:
- Help identify non-training related performance bottlenecks that we can help them with.
- Help to get certain realizations to occur in the clients who may otherwise have been reluctant to make certain lifestyle changes as they may have felt they were unnecessary. Basically, their lack of performance can potentially create a readiness to accept information.
*NB: There is a delicate balance here between being coming across in this kind of circumstance as judgmental or coming across as simply inquiring out of genuine curiosity and desire to help. This is because in circumstances where a client is underperforming in their field, they may be in a particularly vulnerable situation psychologically. Of course, there may also be some clients that you work with in which the relationship and circumstances justify a more direct line of inquiry.
Take Your Own Sleep Seriously
Trader/Author/Scholar/Polymath Nassim Nicholas Taleb often refers to the idea that things “experts” actually do themselves are much more useful than what they say you should do. In his book “Skin in the Game” he said: “Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what you have in your portfolio.” If we, as coaches, want the people under our watch to take their sleep seriously we need to do so ourselves. This is not just so we can speak from experience and avoid being hypocrites from a moral perspective, but because getting sufficient sleep can actually make you a better coach. Coaches are often guilty of selfless behavior and having a lifestyle based around early mornings and late nights often at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. Coaches need to be generous in order to serve the people we work with, but we also need to remain useful to our clients (and loved ones) by getting sufficient rest and recovery ourselves. On top of this, we ideally need to get increasingly useful across time by remaining healthy enough to keep being able to improve in our vocation and outside lives to the best of our abilities. We need to rest enough that we do not take away from our ability to do future work, and sleep plays an enormous role in this. I will finish with another great line by Taleb from the same book that in my opinion wonderfully addresses this concept of coaches leading by example when it comes to sleep: “Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk.”
About the Author
Ciaran is a Cork Ireland based Sport Scientist originally from nearby Limerick. Academically, he received a First-Class B.Sc. in Sport and Exercise Sciences from the University of Limerick in 2012 and is also a published researcher who will be embarking upon a Professional Doctorate in 2019 orientated around uncertainty-based training planning. Athletically, he was a long-term competitor in combatives with Boxing and K1 Kickboxing being his primary interests. Hobby wise, he claims to enjoy studying psychology and philosophy “way above” his “intellectual pay grade.” Professionally, he works in-person with sports teams and individuals as well as an online coach with primarily fighters at Sigma Nutrition.
- Ciaran’s Email: Ciaran@sigmanutrition.com
- Ciaran’s Instagram: @CTQuarrelsome
- Ciaran’s Twitter: @CTQuarrelsome
- Ciaran’s Website: Quarrelsome Life
- Mah, C.D., Mah, K.E., Kezirian, E.J., Dement, W.C. (2011). The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Sleep. 34 (7), 943-950.
- Shokri-Kojori, E., Wang, G.J., Wiers, C.E., et al. (2018). β-Amyloid accumulation in the human brain after one night of sleep deprivation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 115 (17), 4483-4488.
- Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., Van Cauter, E. (2004). Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine. 141 (11), 846-850.