Mallory Weggemann poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
The importance of getting a good night’s sleep is well documented, whether you need a full dose of energy to get through a day at the office — or compete at the Olympic or Paralympic Games.
But sleep has more than just physically restorative benefits. Keeping a good sleep schedule can improve mental health. Gold medals are not won through physical strength alone.
United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee Senior Sport Psychophysiologist Lindsay Shaw recently sat down for an online Q&A with Paralympic swimming gold medalist Mallory Weggemann and Olympic BMX racing gold medalist Connor Fields to discuss how sleep impacts elite athletes.
Not only is sleep important for peak physical performance, Shaw said, it helps with the intense focus and mindset that athletes require.
“I think if we just reflect on our own experience of what happens when we’re not sleeping well, well first, your mood goes,” Shaw said. “You’re (in a) more prominent negative moods state. I mean obviously you’re tired, you’re fatigued, but you maybe are quicker to anger, your mood feels low, your motivation is affected. Certainly sleep is linked to our cognition, the way our mind thinks.
“In a sport like BMX where you have to pay attention to complex reaction times, planning what’s going to happen, paying attention to riders around you, this capacity to be thinking as quickly as possible is negatively affected when you have sleep loss.”
Fields noted that Shaw considers him a “sleeping champion.”
It wasn’t always that way, though. He has noticed feeling angry or frustrated in the past when dealing with a lack of sleep. It was when he began tracking his sleep patterns with Shaw’s help that a more detailed picture began to emerge of the relationship of sleep and his mental health.
“Lindsay was interested in tracking my sleep leading up to an event,” Fields said. “She sent me some tools that measured your heart rate while you were sleeping as well as your breathing rate and things like that to kind of measure how much sleep you’re getting, how much in different phases of the sleep cycle and all that.”
The sleeping champion, also a champion on the BMX track at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, never had a problem getting enough sleep — “I’ve missed a team meeting or two from oversleeping,” he said — and that’s by design. For an athlete who trains at maximum strength for five hours per day, 11 or 12 hours of sleep is necessary and easy to obtain. But not everyone is able to get that level of sleep, athletes included.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, people who don’t regularly get seven to nine hours of sleep per night are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression and 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety. Even small levels of sleep disruption can cause mood changes, which can happen if an athlete is facing early morning or late in the evening training sessions or competitions.
“When we think about this link between sleep and mental health, it’s a bidirectional relationship,” Shaw said. “That means that independent mental health issues can show up in sleep, so things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, these mental health issues have sleep challenges associated with them. But then also when we have periods (of poor sleep), and you just strictly have changes in your sleep, it can also show up in your mood state.”
For those already struggling with getting quality sleep, another added challenge in these current times is the change in schedule brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Athletes who normally operate on a routine suddenly are unable to have one. And that extends to sleep, when regular, consistent sleep is so important to mental health.
“Many people are finding it hard to wind down at night,” said Weggemann, a gold medalist in the S8 50-meter freestyle in London in 2012. “Just laying in bed, I know for myself there’s nights where I lay there and it’s like, I know I shouldn’t go on my phone, but I don’t know what else to do. Like how many times can a 31-year-old woman count her sheep?”
The USOPC has a few tips, such as understanding your body’s chronotype — i.e. if you are a morning person or a night owl. The organization advises people to take advantage of having extra time to sleep, using it to “catch up” on some missed sleep. And have good sleep hygiene, meaning keeping a consistent going-to-bed routine, turning off electronic devices, avoiding caffeine before bed and introducing other healthy habits that can prepare you for a good night’s rest.
“This uncertainty penetrates our motivational structures, the positive emotion systems.” Shaw said. “It lends itself to the negative emotional system of anxiety and uncertainty. So I think rather than jumping right to — because I’ve had some athletes say to me, ‘I just need to have fun, I just need to enjoy this, I’m never going to get this time back,’ they just try to push themselves right into, ‘How can I take advantage of this?’
“Well yes, there is something to be said for that, but you also need to like give yourself some time, and there’s no prescription, whether it’s like days, weeks, months, to say, ‘Yeah, OK, I didn’t see this coming so I’m just going to move through it and then I can reformulate my goal.”