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The Importance of a Sleep Schedule: If you’re active in demanding competitive sports, you are already ahead of the game. A 2007 study presented by Cheri D. Mah (a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory) at the 21st annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies found that people who participated in vigorous activities were twice as likely as nonparticipants to report a pattern of consistently reliable and refreshing sleep time.

Missing just one or two hours of sleep time a night for as few as two weeks packs an equivalent punch to missing two full night’s sleep, and, remember, athletes actually need extra sleep to recover from the demands of their training.

Athletes and regular exercisers are significantly more likely to report falling asleep easily, staying asleep through the night and waking restored and alert than those who opt for a sedentary lifestyle. As the Mayo Clinic1 points out, exercise is a natural stress reliever that boosts your body’s production of feel-good endorphins, increases your concentration and confidence, improves your mood and helps your sleep schedule.

But for athletes who also work or study during the day, and need to hit the pool, gym or rink in the early hours or late at night for practice – it can be all too easy to shave a few hours off their sleep schedule to squeeze in some more training, then end up with a sleep debt. While the resulting fatigue and susceptibility to illness will affect an athlete’s stamina and performance, so will the reduced mental and physical reaction time and ability to focus, remember, exercise good judgment, while increasing the likelihood of poorly considered risk-taking, injuries and accidents.

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It’s no joke. Mental Health Canada2 says that “Sleep-deprived people, who are tested by using a driving simulator or by performing a hand-eye coordination task, perform as badly or worse than those who are intoxicated.” Missing just one or two hours of sleep a night for as few as two weeks packs an equivalent punch to missing two full night’s sleep, and, remember, athletes actually need extra sleep time to recover from the demands of their training. Especially worrisome to high-level athletes, a sleep debt may also increase your body’s level of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can slow tissue repair. Long-term sleep loss, reports Mental Health Canada, is a real threat to peak performance.

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A sleep schedule, and practicing good sleep habits is such an important adjunct to training that a team of researchers has been working with Canada’s Own the Podium program to prepare our competing athletes for the Olympic Games in Vancouver, London and now Sochi. Lead investigator, Dr. Charles Samuels3 is the Medical Director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary, while the team includes the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, Canadian Sport Centre Calgary and the University of Calgary Sport Medicine Centre. He says their research “has focused on developing a valid, reliable method of screening athletes for sleep disturbance and sleep disorders,” adding that “athletes do complain of sleep disturbance and sleep disorders with heavy training loads and travel and this does affect their ability to train and perform.” The researchers screen athletes using a questionnaire. After the assessment, “we have a series of interventions… additionally we help the Integrated Support Teams to manage athlete sleep and travel routines and jet-lag management protocols. Finally we work with the teams to develop adaptive sleep, & recovery plans for the athletes throughout the season.”

Some experts say you’ll reap big benefits if you practice good sleep habits, and lengthen your sleep time, by one or two hours for several weeks before a big event.

If you’re training for an athletic event but don’t have a support team like that, get off to a good start by applying these good sleep habits to your sleep schedule: Swear off the energy drinks, cell phone use and screen time (computer and TV) for a few hours before bed and maintain a good sleep habits. If you’re sleepy during the daytime, take an early-afternoon power nap of 20 to 30 minutes. To determine your best night’s sleep, keep a diary of your sleep schedule for a few weeks, to track your hours of sleep per night plus the following day’s performance, then adjust your sleep hours up or down accordingly. Some experts say you’ll reap big benefits if you lengthen your sleep time, by one or two hours for several weeks before a big event. If you’re an adult who usually needs eight or nine hours sleep per night, for example, you would bump this up to about 10 hours.

Good Sleep Habits: At bedtime, if your muscles are painful or twitchy from training, do some gentle stretching or self-massage. If your mind is racing, try 20 minutes of meditation, breathing exercises, listening to music (not heavy metal) or reading before getting into bed. The night before a competition, put a notebook and pencil on the nightstand so you can write down any concerns or reminders that wake you with a worried thought, so you can set them aside knowing you’ll remember them in the morning. And, if you still can’t settle, consciously tense then relax your muscles, one group at a time, working up from your toes to your scalp.

Many athletes – particularly those in individual sports – sleep fitfully the night before a big event, but the expert advice is not to panic. If you’ve followed good sleep habits during your training, you’ll be primed for success.

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