Sleep and performance in sport. What’s the link?

In this audio interview I talk with Ian Dunican from Sleep4Performance on the link between sleep and performance in sport and strategies that can be used by teams and athletes to optimise sleep and improve performance.

Audio Timeline:

  • 00:00 – 00:24 Introduction
  • 00:24 – 02:23 What’s the link between sleep and sporting performance?
  • 02:23 – 03:23 How does sleep affect recovery?
  • 03:23 – 05:30 What can teams and athletes do to manage travel?
  • 05:30 – 06:40 What about timing of training?
  • 06:40 – 07:40 What’s the role of educating athletes on sleep?
  • 07:40 – 09:23 How to manage tight travel requirements
  • 09:23 – 10:37 What are some tips for switching off after sport?
  • 10:37 – 12:06 Not getting too anxious about sleep
  • 12:06 – 13:36 What are some resources athletes can use?
  •  13:36 – 15:08 Working with Ian and other resources

Ian Dunican – Sleep4Performance

Ian Dunican

Ian Dunican

Ian has 18 year’s international experience (Ireland, Australia, Lebanon, South Africa, Canada, Mozambique & USA) as a leader in project management , business improvement and health, safety, within the mining industry and military. Ian has built on that experience and his passion for sport to work with elite athletes and sports teams on managing their sleep for optimal performance via Sleep4Performance. Ian has a passion for lifelong learning and continuous growth and development and is currently undertaking a PhD looking at sleep and performance in elite athletes.

Connect with Ian on Twitter and Facebook, or checkout his blog.

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Dr. David Cunnington: Sleeping well is a key part of optimising performance for athletes. To talk about this, I met up with Ian Dunican from Sleep4Performance at the recent Australasian Sleep Association annual scientific meeting.

So Ian, thanks for chatting with us and talking about sport and performance and that’s the area that you’re working in. So just to start off with, what are some of the data that links sleep and sport?

Ian Dunican: So some of the data that we have at the moment and across major different sport teams has been looking at sort of in-field stuff, like using actigraphy to monitor sleep that athletes get before the game, during the game and after the game for recovery, so in those three different periods.

Some of the interesting data that we’ve been seeing at the moment that’s kind of linking in sleeping performances that before a game, athletes tend to get more sleep the night before a game and whereas after a game or after a competitive event, the athlete’s sleep seems to be reduced due to many different factors, what are being amped up or hyped up after a game due to scheduling or travelling after a game as well.

Then also the next few days, recovery sleep can be impacted also after as well and so we kind of see this sleep banking of some – an increase in sleep more towards the game. But then a decrease in the night after the game or competitive event and then a gradual recovery. So we see this kind of way of happening over a period during the season.

Dr. David Cunnington: If athletes aren’t sleeping well, how does that translate into on field or during game performance?

Ian Dunican: Yeah, it’s quite interesting. So across a number of different studies and different athletes we’ve been dealing with and so for example when we look at combat sports or fighters, people in mixed martial arts or jiu-jitsu or boxing or so on, if they’re not sleeping well or have a number of sleep disruptions, whether it is being kind of seen in the actigraphy data or from doing PSG in the lab, we see that the next day performance is impaired and due to physical performance and cognitive performance and also just generally how they feel as well and how they train and this can also be affected by the next day scheduling.

So early morning scheduling may affect that as well and lead to a sort of an increase in sleepiness or fatigue over a cumulative period of time. So there’s definitely a relationship between the amount of sleep that these athletes are getting and how they perform whether it’s how they think they’re performing or how they’re actually performing or how sleepy they may think they feel or actually how sleepy they actually are, yeah, from a scientific standpoint.

Dr. David Cunnington: And then what about in recovery, so after performance? What’s the impact if you are not sleeping well on recovery?

Ian Dunican: Yes. So the recovery period is really interesting and we’re working with Western Force at the moment in Western Australia, who are the most travelled sports team, and it’s really interesting during a super rugby competition because then they have games back to back or they may have to travel. So from Perth to South Africa, back to Perth and New Zealand, the East Coast of Australia and now with Japan as well.

So the recovery is a vital piece of the overall performance of the team and more time in the gym or more time on the field during the week is not necessarily translating into better performance in a game in that win-loss metric. So given that ample opportunity for sleep and recovery during this time is really key and obviously there have been lots of published studies about the effect of sleep and recovery with cytokine release, inflammatory markers and testosterone and growth hormone being released during sleep and so on. So that has been reduced. Obviously the athletes can’t physically recover or recover from a mental standpoint when REM has been reduced also as well.

Dr. David Cunnington: So you talked a little bit about travel and gave Western Force as an example. So what’s a team factor and how do you work on that if a team has got to cross a lot of time zones?

Ian Dunican: Yeah, it’s an interesting one because out there at the moment, people are reading stuff and they’re getting to a new time zone and going, “Well, just get out and get some light. We will go train them again in this new time zone,” which is actually making some of these teams worse.

So what we do is we’ve been using a lot of biomathematic and modelling and so there are different tools out there like FAST. We use the FAST, the Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool from Fatigue Science in Vancouver and we’ve been using that to model last season where we take the training times. We take the game times. We take a sample of 10 days actigraphy data and put that into the model as well. We take the flight times and we’ve modelled last season and we’ve actually used that then to extrapolate that to an effectiveness measure to show their effectiveness when they’re just awake. So they may be doing some extracurricular activities like vocation education or going to university or running a business.

We also look at the effectiveness while they’re training and joining the week as well from those different training times.

So using those measures then, we had been able to model various countermeasures for next season such as change in flights, training times, increase in sleep, making manipulations in sleep and environment and so on. We have to model those to demonstrate from a modelling perspective what these changes may bring about.

So in the next season, we would be actually deploying those countermeasures with the aid of the coach and the performance coach and then hopefully we will be climbing the ladder to show that sleep can actually help you win. I think going on that note as well, we had been – we see a lot of these YouTube clips and these video inspirational clips particularly on combat sports and interactive sports like rugby and so on where it’s these little rise and grind video clips of Nike, someone getting up and running in the morning. It’s nice and dark and you’re up and you’re doing stuff before everybody else.

I’ve been saying forget about that. It’s not what it’s in the Rocky movie. It’s not of getting up early, rise and grind. It’s sleep in and win. That’s what we need to think about. We need to increase our sleep opportunity, maximise our recovery to optimise our performance.

Dr. David Cunnington: Really love that tagline, sleep in and win. I think you’re on the right track there. But how do you balance that? So I see some athletes and elite athletes like Australian rules footballers. They got a night game. The club scheduled early morning compulsory training. If I don’t show up, I’m going to be scratched for next week. So how do you manage that difficult balance?

Ian Dunican: Yeah, there are two parts and when you look at this from an industry perspective, it’s nearly the same approach with athletes. There’s the organisational aspect and there’s the individual aspect. When we talk about FRMS, fatigue risk management systems, and we talk about sports performance management systems, it’s the same thing as well.

So by doing the modelling like I just spoke about, we engage the organisation with the coaches and administrators and we demonstrate the values to them. Taking that down a level then, we work with the athletes, giving them fatigue education training. We also give them actigraphy reports and show them how they’re performing and then a lot of coaches have been receptive to that and change the training times. So instead of after these late night games and coming in at half 7:00, we’re now starting the training at 9:00, 10:00, 11 o’clock the next morning to allow adequate opportunity for these guys to sleep. So it has been kind of a dual responsibility and they’re working hand in hand. So it’s definitely a shared responsibility just like in other industries.

Dr. David Cunnington: In the non-sports industry, we would be using cognitive behavioural therapy for example, so teaching people good sleep habits. How does that fit in, in terms of one of the individual things you can do?

Ian Dunican: Yeah, definitely. So when we meet individual athletes, we are giving them individual feedback and that’s just between sort of all sorts of researchers and with the individual. That stuff is not reported back to the coaches or it’s kept – it’s de-identified and for some of those we also have a kind of a triage of some sorts where when we’ve seen them in the lab, we’ve seen their actigraphy, then we refer them to a sleep physician. We have the sleep physician as well. Maybe it’s cognitive behavioural therapy or we get them training education as well. We do some one-on-one stuff with them but maybe additional actigraphy and sleep diary and then we may refer to them again.

So I think it’s constantly engaging those athletes over the season and supporting them as well. Well, we’ve seen that as well in basketball as well working with the teams in Western Australia. The same sort of approach works really well. Keep them involved. Don’t keep the data separate. Get them as part of the journey like we do with anybody. The more information we give people, the more they want to actually change.

Dr. David Cunnington: So there are sporting teams where you play once a week, rugby, and so you do get a bit of a chance to acclimatise to different time zones and plan ahead. But what about teams with really tight turnaround times? Like some of those US teams where it’s different city, different day. How do you manage that?

Ian Dunican: Yeah, I think that’s really key and you see this in basketball a lot and play these double headers. So some of them might fly from Perth to Melbourne, play again in Melbourne, go and play a game in Bendigo, fly back – drive back to Melbourne and fly back or so on. The NBA in America is notorious for that and we’ve been talking to the Philadelphia 76ers about the same thing. I think that again it comes down to being able to demonstrate some of the sort of countermeasures going into the game. So I know some people don’t like the term “sleep banking” but giving them extra opportunity for sleep to achieve that. So at least you get that as well.

I think the other key, what I’ve been noticing as well and latching on to is the flight after the game. So instead of like getting a red eye out of a city and going to another city, allow them to get adequate sleep after a game in that city, in that sleeping environment and then the next morning maybe travel to the next one. The other aspect we’re using on – or the other aspect we’re looking at this as well is how do we use the squad. So we’ve got 35 players in the squad or 40 players like in a rugby squad or AFL squad.

Do we have to send every player to this one game? Can we kind of send 15, 16 to this game or 20 to this game and then come back and have to split the squad and go again and people play around with the travel schedule? So it is difficult to manage and it’s hard but I think leading into the game under recovery is what we have to be looking on, the either ends of the spectrum because it’s a bit like in special force operations. We know we’re going to hit a really hard period of time and we have to perform at optimal levels. So what can we do before and what can we do after?

Dr. David Cunnington: So one of the things athletes tell me is just performing really gets their adrenaline up, really wound up, and one of their hard things is to switch off. So what are some tips for athletes in that regard?

Ian Dunican: There’s some interesting work happening with this with some universities and some athletes and I haven’t been involved in this but I’ve been watching it with a keen eye. People are using like things like The Mindfulness App and using breathing exercises to relax and recover after the game. We’ve also been looking at caffeine and the impact of caffeine. So obviously when you take caffeine, it has got an hour to peak and they can have four hours of a half life or even more. Some people depend on it habitually. So avoiding those caffeinated drinks before the game well before or if you’re going to take it strategically, take it well in advance so it’s peaking before the game and not peaking after the game. That will help you as well.

I think also there’s a lot of measurement coming up in electronic devices and some are conflicting. I recently found in a study that there was no real effect but I think as well even from a sleep hygiene point of view, reducing stimuli after the game is going to be key as well. So not going out to party and drinking or watching TV or going back and watching other games that you may have missed or re-watching a game using that sort of – the relaxation technique, whatever it might be, whether it be meditation, having some downtime and just relaxing before sleep.

Dr. David Cunnington: How do you get that balance? I do see athletes and they’re very fixated on if I’m not sleeping enough, it’s going to impact my performance and my recovery. That in itself can make them anxious about sleep. So how do you get people onboard? Sleep is important but not so important that if I don’t get it, it’s going to really wreck my performance. How do you create that balance?

Ian Dunican: I don’t really know. I’m still working on it individually with  people and some of the things I’ve said about the education and dealing with people is key as well and I’ve sort of been active on Twitter and Facebook and keep pumping out information and the guys follow that and like that.

So it’s very difficult and I think it’s OK as well to tell athletes that every night is not going to be perfect. Like we said, anybody – you would see this as well David. One or two nights’ sleep is not going to be detrimental and you can still optimise your performance the next day. But long term for your career as an athlete, yeah, it’s good to get good sleep. But don’t stress out. We all have bad night’s sleep. We all toss and turn and have crazy thoughts in certain places in our mind, whatever it might be. But also showing them the value of sleep in the short term and also in the long term to have good sleep habits is going to help them. I think if we can not only affect these athletes for the short term in their athletic career but also for the long term health and longevity.

Dr. David Cunnington: Yeah, I really like that approach and it fits exactly with the balance we’re trying to strike with insomnia and clinical practice is yeah, sleep is important. Yeah, you got to prioritise it but don’t get so caught up about it. Think about it as a long term thing of getting good sleep and getting enough sleep. Don’t sweat the short term and the variation.

So you talked a bit about elite teams and the team with professional players and you got a budget. We can do the sort of things you’ve been talking about. But what if you’re an athlete? Maybe at the state level and you don’t have sponsorship and you’re trying to manage your own performance. What are some things someone at that level could do?

Ian Dunican: I think there are a few things that people could do. I think one is – obviously there’s some great advice out there on the internet and there’s also some crap advice. So I would say to you if you’re looking at stuff online, try to find reputable sources and that’s really difficult to do in this day and age. So one is find reputable advice because there’s lots of charlatans out there that are giving advice that’s completely wrong for athletes and might make you worse. So I think that’s key as well.

I think there are free simple tools you can use out there online as well like sleep diaries. I think they’re really good for athletes, just making a note of what time you go to bed, what time you get up and have a look at your sleep-work patterns personally and then obviously there may be a place for things like wearable devices as well.

However I would caution athletes with wearable devices that it can be quite variable and from a research standpoint of view, they’re not validated and none of these devices are validated or sleep apps but they may be good for helping you kind of roughly quantify the amount of sleep that you’re getting.

But you will find I think in the sports world and around the sleep world if you hit someone up on Twitter or Facebook or on a website, there is lots of good free information that people will give you and be quite keen to share their information regardless of money. A lot of us are very passionate with what we do and we would like to share that information. So yeah, that’s a couple of cheap ways people can do it.

Dr. David Cunnington: Well, you’re very active online. So how can people hit you up on Twitter or get in touch with the sort of information you’re putting out there?

Ian Dunican: Yeah. So I’m pretty active on Twitter in most days. I’m @sleep4perform and so that’s the number “4,” perform. We’re on Facebook at Sleep4Performance. You can follow me there as well and I’m always on there sort of giving out tips and tricks about sleep and advice and answer questions. More than happy to do that as well.

Dr. David Cunnington: So if people aren’t looking for you online, have you got any other resources or ways people can get information?

Ian Dunican: Yeah. We have a short ebook that’s available on Amazon and the Amazon platform and it’s a Kindle edition. If you don’t have a Kindle, that’s fine. You can just download the Kindle app for free and read it through that, so you don’t actually need a Kindle device. That book is called Managing Sleep and Jet Lag and I wrote that with a guy called Dr. John Caldwell who was an experimental psychologist with NASA and the Air Force and that’s a really nice, quick, easy guide as well, 35, 40 pages. Managing Sleep and Jet Lag is a guide for optimal performance. In that as well, we interview some athletes. So we have Adam Gilchrist in that book. We have Oren Janiv [0:14:34] [Phonetic] from Judo Australia. We got a UFC fighter Steven Kennedy and we have industry examples in there as well.

So it’s a great book for just managing those basics of sleep and jet lag as well if you’re travelling through multiple time zones. It talks about caffeine, sleep medication and so on. It has got – it points you also to some free apps out there that are quite good and that you can use on your devices and some additional reading as well, which for $3.50 it’s quite a cheap, easy guide for athletes to use.

Dr. David Cunnington: Yeah, it’s a great suggestion. Thanks Ian.

Ian Dunican: No worries. Thanks Dave.

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