Bet­ter sleep holds the key to in­jury preven­tion and im­proved per­for­mance

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES -

PRE-SEA­SON plan­ning be­gins in Oc­to­ber for many GAA in­ter­county teams. Man­age­ment, coaches and ath­letes come to­gether to de­vise strate­gies to achieve suc­cess in the new sea­son. There is an em­pha­sis on strength and con­di­tion­ing, in­jury preven­tion, train­ing week­ends, re­cov­ery ses­sions and the sched­ul­ing of matches.

My re­search be­gan with pre-sea­son test­ing of three GAA in­ter-county teams, both foot­ball and hurl­ing. I was screen­ing teams for ham­string mus­cle in­juries as part of my mas­ter’s in the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick when my su­per­vi­sor, Dr Kieran O’Sul­li­van, en­cour­aged me to ex­plore the sleep and well-be­ing of th­ese ath­letes. I was fas­ci­nated with the find­ings and de­cided to change di­rec­tion and pur­sue a PhD to in­ves­ti­gate sleep in elite ath­letes.

Our sleep study was sim­ple in de­sign. We gave our three teams, 69 elite male Gaelic foot­ballers and hurlers, a set of val­i­dated ques­tion­naires re­lated to sleep, gen­eral health, stress and mood. The sleep ques­tion­naire is a re­search tool that en­abled us to clas­sify the play­ers as ‘poor sleep­ers’ or ‘good sleep­ers’. Ques­tions were asked around the time taken to fall asleep, the qual­ity of sleep and du­ra­tion, sleep dis­tur­bances and day­time dys­func­tion. We then com­pared the gen­eral health and well-be­ing of the poor sleep­ers and the good sleep­ers.

We found al­most half (47.8 per cent) were poor sleep­ers, and those who were poor sleep­ers had sig­nif­i­cantly lower gen­eral health, in­creased stress and lower mood. This clearly is not what we want in elite ath­letes who aim to push the lim­its of their minds and bod­ies in pur­suit of sport­ing suc­cess. Our study was not with­out lim­i­ta­tions; es­pe­cially, the self-re­port na­ture of the ques­tion­naires. How­ever, if nearly 50 per cent of our ath­letes are telling us they aren’t get­ting enough sleep, we have a prob­lem.

The im­pli­ca­tions of poor sleep in ath­letes are grim. Poor sleep is re­lated to slower re­ac­tion times, com­pro­mised phys­i­cal per­for­mance, in­creased risk of ill­ness and in­jury, lower mood and de­creased abil­ity to learn and re­mem­ber new skills. Poor sleep is not unique to play­ers in the GAA. Poor sleep has also been re­ported in elite ath­letes in nu­mer­ous sports such as swim­ming, rugby, cricket, ice hockey and track and field. This is thought to be re­lated to train­ing times, com­pe­ti­tion stress/ anx­i­ety, mus­cle sore­ness, caf­feine use, tech­nol­ogy and travel.

Im­prov­ing sleep in ath­letes by in­creas­ing the du­ra­tion of their sleep has shown some promis­ing re­sults. Re­searchers en­cour­aged ath­letes to in­crease their sleep du­ra­tion from six to eight hours to ten per night for a pe­riod of six weeks. This re­sulted in in­creased sprint and re­ac­tion times, greater en­ergy and im­proved mood in their ath­letes. There is a rea­son why the top sports teams around the world such as Barcelona, Manch­ester United and many NFL teams are all pri­ori­tis­ing and fa­cil­i­tat­ing sleep for their ath­letes.

Sim­ply telling our ath­letes to get more sleep is likely to be in­ef­fec­tive, as we know in­for­ma­tion alone rarely re­sults in be­hav­iour change. We need to ed­u­cate our ath­letes and coaches on the prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with poor sleep, high­light the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of im­proved sleep and work through per­ceived bar­ri­ers in achiev­ing on­go­ing good qual­ity sleep. We need to en­cour­age good sleep habits in our ath­letes, such as con­sis­tent bed and wake times, strate­gic use of caf­feine, timely naps and de­creased screen time in the hour be­fore bed.

As with all ar­eas of science, more re­search is needed. As part of a re­search group in Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, we have a fol­low-up study where we mon­i­tored the sleep habits of an in­ter-county team for a pe­riod of six months. We are also work­ing on projects with our in­ter­na­tional ath­letes as­sess­ing their sleep be­fore and dur­ing long-haul travel and at in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion.

Last week’s draws for next year’s GAA cham­pi­onships will have fo­cused teams as pre-sea­son plan­ning and sched­ul­ing be­gins. There’s a lot of talk of the im­por­tance of re­cov­ery ses­sions be­tween matches. Re­cov­ery in sport of­ten trans­lates as ice baths, pool ses­sions, com­pres­sion gar­ments, mas­sage and foam-rolling — all of which have a place — but there is no re­cov­ery with­out sleep. As a coach, if you want your ath­letes to con­sis­tently train hard with­out the in­ter­rup­tion of ill­ness and in­jury, you need to pri­ori­tise sleep. As an ath­lete, if you want in­creased sprint and en­durance times, greater en­ergy, mood and mo­ti­va­tion, and de­creased risk of in­jury and ill­ness, you need to pri­ori­tise sleep. May the rested team win.

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