How Great Britain's rowers plan to sleep their way to Olympic gold

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When Moe Sbihi arrived in Tokyo ahead of the rowing programme he already knew what his priority was: get his sleep pattern back in shape. The veteran rower had been given specific advice on how to overcome the issues of jet lag and potential early morning competitive starts. The last thing GB Rowing wanted was for its athletes in contention for a gold medal to give an impression of Bill Murray in the movie Lost In Translation, blinking in sleep-deprived confusion. 

“They’ve been monitoring how we sleep for some time,” explains Sbihi, who will row in the four seat of the men’s eight. “All through lockdown, when we were training from home, they checked us through our devices, to make sure we were sleeping right. Though to be honest, during lockdown there wasn’t really that much chance of any of us suffering from a shortage of sleep.”

Given the emphasis placed on the need for a good night's rest, the rescheduling of the men's eights heats to the small hours of Saturday morning was probably not ideal for Sbihi - who was flying the flag for Britain at the Opening Ceremony - or his crewmates. 

How athletes sleep has, over the past few years, become as significant a part of their preparation as what they eat. At GB Rowing’s Caversham performance centre they have installed a sleep sanctuary, where rowers can head off to catch up with their kip. The rowing team's sports scientists and data analysts have resolved that proper sleep is as essential a part of the recovery process as taking a dip in an ice bath. They are not unusual. Sleep has become a significant branch of the study of sport. When she was taking her degree in sports science, the Olympic high jumper Morgan Lake wrote her dissertation on athletes’ napping habits.

"It was really weird, because it was all about the importance of sleep and stuff and I was there, at 3am writing about it. It was so contradictory,” she says. “My research was mostly questionnaires, so I got insight into athletes and how long they sleep for, when they usually nap around training and competition. It was interesting data."

In Tokyo, Lake will not be short of people to talk to about her research. Team GB takes the approach of rest sufficiently seriously that it has taken a sleep specialist to Japan to help its athletes acclimatise quickly to a different time zone. Dr Luke Gupta of the English Institute of Sport will be on hand to offer individual advice. 

“We know that if athletes don't sleep well then it does have a profound impact on their performance,” he says. 

The question that has been concerning sports scientists, however, is what exactly does a good sleeping habit entail? Is there an ideal amount of kip? Roger Federer, for instance, talks about sleeping 12 hours a day, while Cristiano Ronaldo insists on taking five half-hour naps. But Dr Gupta is sceptical about the benefits of attempting to generalise. 

“The limitation to that is that you do get some athletes that may think, 'oh, I need to sleep for 12 hours a night'. It can make someone lose confidence quite quickly because they realise their sleep isn’t elite sleep like Roger Federer’s and they brand themselves as imperfect. But they’re not.”

Because sleep is, he maintains, a very individual issue. Different bodies require different refuelling processes.

“What’s happened is that sleep is being treated like every other entity in sport. An athlete’s nutrition, their diet, they need to work hard at that. Sleep is being treated the same - athletes are expected to have the perfect diet, the perfect training regime, but now also to have the perfect sleep. But we don't really know what that looks like. And we know that sleep operates very differently to that.”

Sbihi, for instance, had his sleep patterns checked alongside his training performance, to come up with a pattern which was appropriate to his biorhythms. Each rower was advised differently and only after specific analysis. This, says Dr Gupta, is critical. 

“It's almost been out there a little bit too much,” he says of the growing one-upmanship among leading sports people about how long they keep their eyes shut. “It's like a performance enhancer, which basically means that if an athlete doesn't get 10 hours of unbroken sleep every single night they're not going to go on and win a gold medal. Which is obviously ridiculous.”

But, as sleep becomes ever more central to athletes’ preparation, the peculiar issues of Olympic competition throw up new challenges. Adrenalin can cause as much disruption as jet lag. And, for any of the British team getting exercised about buzzing after a performance, help will be at hand. 

“The likelihood is after late night events an athlete’s not going to sleep very well,” he says. “But sleep is a form of recovery, you need to sleep well to recover from the heats in order to be ready for the final. That’s what makes it difficult. So you have to set the athletes’ expectations that their sleep won’t be great that night. But the next night is their target. And the night before competition everyone wants to sleep really well. But again that’s the wrong place to try and focus because we know that’s the most likely time your sleep’s going to get disturbed. So we try to make athletes focus on the few nights leading up to the big events. It's a case of setting appropriate expectations.”

After all, however much research is done into the issue this fundamental truth remains the same: the most important thing about sleep is to be wide awake on the start line.

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