| 5.9°C Dublin

Pillow to podium: The power of 'elite' sleep

Health scientist Tom Coleman works with top athletes and executives to optimise performance. He shares some insights on the silver bullet that is sleep


Many elite coaches have realised that they are better off allowing their athletes to rest harder and longer

Many elite coaches have realised that they are better off allowing their athletes to rest harder and longer

Tom Coleman

Tom Coleman


Many elite coaches have realised that they are better off allowing their athletes to rest harder and longer

Sleep was recently described by professor of neuroscience at Berkley- Mathew Walker as "the greatest legal enhancing performance enhancing drug that most people are neglecting in sport…if you're getting six hours or less, your time to physical exhaustion drops by up to 30pc". Yet there is an attitude in our culture, where surviving on little sleep is seen as positive. It's almost like a badge of honour to be up early - which can be a major issue considering we have pushed our going to bed time back by a couple of hours.

Sleep & Recovery

If you could create an ideal environment where you accelerate the body's ability to recover, replenish energy, speed up tissue repair, build muscle, clean your brain, improve reaction time, reduce stress, boost testosterone, slow down ageing, coaches and sports stars would queue up to buy it. The reality is that all of this and much more is happening when you get good-quality sleep.

Many elite coaches have realised that they are better off allowing their athletes to rest harder and longer, which will give them a much better athlete less likely to injure and more likely to perform better. Most teams in the NFL have sleep strategies and monitor their athletes' sleep and fatigue levels. Wearable tech is giving us insights in to how well we rest. This is critical and impacts everything from body composition to reaction times.

Sleep & Performance

Sleep quality and quantity is a key factor in optimising athletic performance. Reaction time is an important aspect in athletic performance. Mental fatigue from poor sleep can be directly correlated with significantly reduced reaction times. Simple reaction time (SRT), a response to a single stimulus, may be important to nearly all types of athletes; however, choice reaction time (CRT), a reaction to multiple stimuli, is uniquely required in team sports such as Gaelic football. How often have we seen a player win a ball, sprint 100m, weave, pass, show immense physical prowess and then right at the crucial moment make a really poor judgement. Everything from decision making to shot accuracy, perceived level of exertion are all impacted through sleep. All five components of fitness can be influenced positively or negatively though our sleep practice.

Sleep & Body Composition

Individuals who are sleep-deprived will have elevated levels of cortisol for longer. Not only can this keep you awake but it will also influence how your body decides what to do with energy. Essentially your body will prefer to store energy as fat if cortisol levels remain elevated. This is one of many mechanisms which are impacted by insufficient sleep. Your body will not choose to build new muscle or even start repairing damage if you are stressed or in fight or flight. It simply is not a priority. To compound the problem, your hunger hormone ghrelin will be elevated and the switch to turn hunger down - leptin - will be dulled. Having a high protein breakfast has been shown to reduce ghrelin levels. I have developed different nutritional strategies to align and co-ordinate with our innate circadian rhythm to optimise performance, recovery and body composition.

The Mechanics of Sleep

We sleep in 90 minute-blocks or cycles. Brain wave activity changes and modulates over the course of the night. We repair from a physical perspective and a psychological perspective. The majority of human growth hormone is secreted during the first two deep phases of sleep. Would it not be a great idea for us to ingest a slow-releasing protein to coincide with this growth hormone to accelerate muscle repair? This is one of many inside secrets I have learned through years of working and researching. Utilising this information about the 90-minte blocks can be useful. We should be getting about 35 sleep cycles per week. We could always sneak in a 90-minute block on the bus before a game. Many of the top professionals with the longest careers have done so.

In the latter phases of sleep, most of the psychological repair is done, memory is embedded, the brain flushes itself out at night. Your lymphatic system cleans up metabolic waste and dead tissue, but it doesn't extend to the brain. So, your brain must clean itself. And it does so when you are getting enough good quality sleep.


Tom Coleman

Tom Coleman

Tom Coleman


Food & Sleep

Your gut bacteria have their own circadian rhythm. Many die away at night and other bacteria proliferate, multiply and clean up your digestive system. This is one reason why it's not a great idea to eat a large meal close to bedtime. The energy-producing engines in every cell in your body called 'mitochondria' ramp down energy output once it gets dark, so essentially metabolism drops. It is important to get your food and timing right to help your body repair and to replenish energy. It is one of the most asked questions I get. Many foods can actually enhance sleep such as cherries or pistachios - a handful of either will deliver you with 3mg does of melatonin, the sleep neurotransmitter.

What time is cut-off for eating when it comes to sleep? The expert recommendation is two to three hours prior to bed. This might not be achievable for many. Some people train after work and then find it difficult to switch off because they are in "fight or flight" and their system has been flooded with adrenalin and other powerful chemical drivers. My advice is to have a strategy similar to professional athletes. A hot and then cold shower will help your system flush out some of the build-up. I sometimes recommend an anti-inflammatory shake with whey protein, frozen pineapple and freshly milled linseed. It will depend on the level of training. Inflammation is a key part of recovery - controlling it is essential. Some food is essential to induce sleep. Protein contains an amino acid called tryptophan which increases production of melatonin. Deep breathing before bad can also activate the 'rest & recover' para-sympathetic nervous system. Those wishing to accelerate muscle-building might consider a casein protein shake three hours prior to bed.

Good Sleep Hygiene tips

1. Routine & Ritual - As much as possible we should try to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time. Instead of hitting the snooze button, have a reverse snooze button telling you to go to bed or start your routine. Form a regular restful ritual for quality sleep.

2. Unwind the Mind - Start to wind down an hour before bed. Learn and practise different meditations until you find one that works for you. Writing or keeping a journal can also help de-clutter our minds and help us de-stress. Relaxing music can also help.

3. Nutrition - Avoid large meals and spicy foods prior to bed. Try not to eat two to three hours before sleep. Certain foods like wholegrains and proteins contain tryptophan which can help increase the sleep hormone melatonin. Cherries and pistachios contain a full dose of naturally occurring melatonin.

4. Temperature - Keep the room as cool as you can. Temperature is a key trigger for sleep onset. Having a hot bath or shower an hour before bed will help lower your core body temperature and cause a rise in melatonin production.

5. Vitamins & Supplements - I would recommend taking a vitamin D supplement earlier in the day and also trying a magnesium supplement later in the day. One tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and 1 tbsp of honey combined in hot water an hour before bed can really help bring on sleep.

6. Control the Light - The 'master switch' when it comes to sleep is light. Get lots of bright light early in the day and then as the day progresses, avoid bright light. This is where you also need to manage electronics such as phones and tablets. Blue light is very powerful at keeping us awake. An eye mask will instantly improve your sleep quality.

7. Stimulants & Sedatives - Stimulants like coffee should be limited as they can negatively impact sleep onset and also sleep maintenance. Alcohol is a sedative which dulls signals to the brain and interferes with good quality sleep and restoration. No caffeine after 2pm and leave an hour for every unit of alcohol consumed.

8. Environment ­- Your bedroom should be a haven for sleep and serenity. Avoid clutter, keep it tidy, keep the light and the temperature very low. Infuse the air with lavender, put on your face mask and ear plugs and enjoy a lovely restful night's sleep.

Tom Coleman is a nutritionist and Health Scientist and will appear at Thrive festival at the Convention Centre, Dublin, which runs Feb 29-March 1. thrivefestival.ie

Health & Living