Dr Michael Grandner explains the links between poor sleep and poor mental health, and how an athlete’s lifestyle could impact their ability to sleep well.

Michael knows that not sleeping well can lead to a vicious cycle that could be harmful to an athlete’s all-round well-being.

He offers his expert tips on how you can help your athletes mitigate the downsides of an unpredictable schedule and learn to sleep well.

Sound asleep, sound of mind

What if I told you that I had a method that  you could use not only to improve an athlete’s performance significantly but also to improve their mental performance, mental health and relationships?

Sleep and mental health are very closely connected. Anyone who hasn’t slept well can tell you that it tends to make you more irritable, more short-tempered and in a worse mood in general. On a more scientific level, there’s a whole biochemistry of how sleep and mental health are connected. People who don’t sleep well, or who don’t sleep enough, have a much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders, and have more difficulty managing stress.

It can become a vicious circle. Poor sleep can lead to mental health issues and contribute to worries and stress, which can all in turn interfere with sleep. If your athlete is struggling with their mental health, you can start by encouraging them to focus on their sleep. But helping them to get a good level of quality sleep will help protect their mental well-being in the first place.

If you don’t snooze, you lose

Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that might actually make it more difficult for an athlete to be sleeping well compared to most people. When it comes to sleep, having a routine is very, very important, but your athletes will often face pretty chaotic schedules.

A healthy adult typically needs about seven hours of sleep at night but, even if their schedule is fairly consistent, many athletes struggle to find enough time to sleep because they have to get up early so often for training and travel. On top of that, they might actually need a little bit more sleep than others, especially if they’re a young adult or an adolescent, for whom eight or nine hours of sleep is required for them to be at their best.

Aside from the mental health benefits, sleep is when our muscles are rebuilding and when our body is reorganising and utilising nutrients – so if your athletes are training hard but not sleeping well, they’re actually harming themselves. That’s why you have to do what you can to make sure they’re getting the right amount of high-quality sleep. Understanding how important sleep is and supporting your athletes’ efforts to improve their quality of sleep is vital.

Top tips for better sleep

1

Make your bed and sleep in it

A bed should equal sleep. You should encourage your athlete to spend time in bed only when sleeping. They shouldn’t spend time reading, watching TV, working, thinking or worrying in bed. If they’re in bed and can’t fall asleep, they should get up. The worst thing an athlete can do is spend time struggling to get to sleep, because over time the ability of the bed to trigger sleep response will become diluted. You should advise them to avoid doing anything too mentally stimulating before bed. If they decide to watch an episode of a show or read a few pages of a book and then go back to bed, that’s fine.

2

Get up on the right side of the bed

No matter what time zone your athletes are in or how quickly they’ve travelled, if they want to tell their brain it’s daytime, they need some bright light. A lot of athletes get up really early – earlier than their bodies want to – so one way that you can help them to feel more energetic and enhance their performance is to encourage them to get as much light in the morning as possible. That could be opening their blinds and standing in front of an open window for a few minutes, or getting outside within a few minutes of waking up and getting moving.

3

Wind down

If getting into bed is the first time an athlete’s mind has the chance to wind down, that will cause problems. Advise them to turn off the TV an hour before they get ready for bed and that will give them time to relax. A lot of people confuse distraction with relaxation. Relaxation is more of an active process, and a lot of athletes know this because it’s like stretching. Stretching is an active process, which is key to preparation. Taking time to wind down and relax before sleep is just as important as stretching before training.

4

Get talking

If you think an athlete might be suffering from a long-term sleep disorder, try to persuade them to talk to their doctor or someone who has expertise in this area. There are medications that can be helpful for treating sleep disorders. Usually though, the side effects of these medications tend to create dulled senses and a slowed reaction time, and might even increase injury and illness risk. For an athlete, those could be pretty serious problems. As an alternative, you can look into behavioural treatments for sleep disorders, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which don’t have the same side effects as medications and have been shown to work just as well or better.

To hear about other key topics related to mental health, featuring insight from athletes and experts, check out our page on mental health to stay updated.