Sleep Deprivation Coping Strategies for Athletes

Losing sleep sucks, and it’s true that regularly not getting enough sleep probably ultimately affects all aspects of health and performanceBut there are times when sleep deprivation is unavoidable, and less time sleeping means more time for what you really want to do, which in some instances (e.g., ultra running) leads to better performance. So, wouldn’t it be helpful to have some strategies that help you succeed when you’re short on shuteye?  

In the last few years, we’ve worked with a range of competitors who simply have to perform despite debilitating sleep disruption, and in this blog, we’ll cover some of the more effective sleep deprivation coping methods for athletes. We won’t focus on any one sport, for the strategies below should be helpful whether you’re an ocean rower, an ultra cyclist, or an ultra runner competing in an event such as the Montane Spine Race. And if you're not an athlete but do experience sleep deprivation now and then, you'll also find these tips handy.

Before we dive in though, I just want to be clear that I’m not recommending regularly depriving yourself of sleep! For more information about the importance of sleep for athletes, check out this podcast with our friends at Beyond The Ultimate.   

Okay, let’s get to it! 

 

Key takeaways  

  • “Banking” sleep protects against the detrimental effects of subsequent sleep loss so, if possible, prolong your time in bed by 20% to 30% for at least 1 week before the event during which you’ll inevitably lose sleep. 
  • If you’re short on sleep, smart use of napping has numerous benefits. The best times at which to nap are usually from about 1pm to 3pm and then during the period when you’d usually sleep at night. A 20-min nap is ideal for a quick boost in energy, a 90-min nap is ideal for a sustained boost, plus some additional physical recovery.
  • Caffeine and creatine supplementation help maintain performance during sleep deprivation. Try 1 mg caffeine per kg bodyweight every 3 h during sleep deprivation. Use 5 g creatine monohydrate per day with breakfast, starting about 4 weeks before the event.
  • We each respond differently to sleep loss, so it’s smart to occasionally practice performing during sleep deprivation.

 

Before the event: get more sleep than you usually do 

The unfortunate reality is that many of us routinely don’t get as much sleep as we need. As a result, when we undergo a period of “sleep extension” in which we give ourselves more time in bed and hence get more sleep, we experience a range of beneficial effects. In fact, of the different sleep interventions that have been designed to improve performance in athletes, sleep extension seems to reign supremeIn athletes, sleep extension has been shown to improve mood, reaction times, sprint times, endurance time-trial performance, swim turns, swim kick stroke efficiency, tennis serving accuracy, basketball free throw accuracy, and 3-point accuracy. Sleep extension can also enhance brain function and many aspects of cardiometabolic health. 

What’s more, how you sleep in the days before sleep deprivation strongly influences how well you cope with sleep loss. So-called “sleep banking” before sleep loss can help preserve key aspects of performance, such as brain function, during sleep loss. 

To realise these benefits, try the following for at least 1 week before the event: 

  • Don’t use an alarm clock. If you must use one, set it as late as possible. 
  • If you do the above, get outside for at least 30 mins for a walk (or exercise) within 2 h of getting out of bed. If the sun is up at this time, exposure to daylight will help you feel sleepy early the following evening, which is helpful at this time - if you can nod off earlier, you might be able to get more sleep. 
  • Reduce your caffeine intake or stop consuming it entirely. If you’re a tea and/or coffee addict, switch to decaff. The most important thing is to avoid caffeine late in the day, so skip caffeine from after about 12 h before your planned bedtime. This will help you go to sleep earlier, and it will also restore your sensitivity to some of the effects of caffeine when you reintroduce it during the event (more on this below).
  • Optional: Include a 20-min nap at some point between 1pm and 3pm. This is to get more sleep in total.
  • Turn off screens at least 1 h before your planned bedtime.
  • Only go to bed when you’re sleepy. While your goal is to spend more time in bed during this phase, you shouldn’t go to bed if you’re not sleepy. If you do, you’ll just lie in bed awake, eroding your sleep quality.  

You’ll notice that I haven’t suggested how long you should spend in bed. The reason is that there are big differences between people in how much sleep they need. This said, I think aiming to spend 20% to 30% more time in bed in total at this time is a good starting for many of us. So, if you currently spend 8 h in bed per night, 10 h in bed is probably a good target.  

 

 

 

During the event: use napping judiciously  

Even brief naps can be remarkably restorativeIf you’re short on sleep, naps can energise you, boost your alertness, improve your memory, enhance your ability to learn new things, brighten your mood, support your cardiovascular health, boost some aspects of physical performance, and more.  

When you nap is important. Because of the way sleep is regulated, there’s a dip in alertness around the hottest time of day, which was presumably programmed during human evolution to help keep us out of the sun when its rays are most damaging. (People often refer to this phenomenon as the “post-lunch slump”, but it actually has little to do with lunch.) This means about 1pm to 3pm is a prime time to nap. 

The other time of day that is ideal for napping the biological night-time – that time of day when you’d usually choose to sleep (for adults, this time is often between 11pm to 7am).  

Next, nap duration matters too. This is because of the way that your body cycles between different stages of sleep. Basically, sleep cycles typically last about 90 mins, and at the start of a sleep cycle, sleep normally gets progressively “deeper”. The problem is that if you wake from a state of deep sleep (especially if this happens after prior sleep deprivation), you’re more likely to experience grogginess (“sleep inertia”), which leads to temporary performance impairment.  

To minimise sleep inertia, keep naps to either about 20 mins for a quick boost in brain function and alertness, or about 90 mins if you want a nap that is more restorative for your whole body 

If you nap during the event, practice napping in advance. You’ll want to check that the alarm you use to wake from naps is effective, and you might want to experiment with eye masks to see if you find these helpful. To help you fall asleep quickly, when you lie down to nap, focus on breathing slowly and deeply through your nose into your abdomen. 

And if you experience some grogginess after your nap, the good news is that exercise and exposure to light can help you get over it quickly. There’s also some evidence that listening to music and consuming our old friend caffeine might help overcome grogginess.

 

Nutrition to help cope with sleep deprivation  

I’ve written about how nutrition can help cope with sleep deprivation in our free guides to nutrition for ultra running and nutrition for ocean rowing. And while doing this subject justice would take a book, I’ll briefly mention two helpful items you can consume either in your diet or as supplements. 

 

Caffeine to counter sleep deprivation 

If you’re interested in caffeine, check out this article for a comprehensive look at how caffeine affects you and how to use it effectively. I recommended consuming small, regular doses of caffeine to help cope with sleep deprivation - 1 mg caffeine per kg bodyweight every 3 h during extended wakefulness is a smart starting point. This recommendation is based in part on a study in which scientists deprived men of sleep for 3 consecutive nights. They found that regular, low-dose caffeine intake during this time helped maintain brain function.  

This is one of the reasons that consuming Energise or Energise and Rebuild Long Range Fuel really comes into its own when you have to stay sharp through the night. 

 

Creatine to counter sleep deprivation

While caffeine blocks the interaction of a sleep-promoting chemical (adenosine) with its receptors, creatine helps reduce the accumulation of this substance during wakefulness. This might explain how creatine supplementation helps maintain some aspects of cognitive and physical performance after sleep loss. 

While the optimal dose of creatine in this context is unclear, 5 g creatine monohydrate per day is a good place to start, and it’s probably best to begin taking this dose several weeks before the event, for it takes time for creatine to boost phosphocreatine stores in tissues such as your muscles and brain. Carbohydrate tends to improve creatine uptake, so take 5 g creatine monohydrate with your first meal of the day. 

There are other ways of nutritionally supporting resilience and performance after poor sleep, but we’ll save that subject for another time! 

 

Remember to practice! 

Finally, please understand that there are large differences between people in how they respond to sleep deprivationand you’ll also find that some aspects of your performance are much more affected than others. The implication is that if you can understand how sleep loss influences you, you’ll be better able to cope with it. One example of this that stands out in my mind is Pip Hare, an ocean sailor with whom we worked during the most recent Vendée Globe competition. As an experienced sailor, Pip has learned how sleep disruption compromises her brain function, and she’s now impressively adept at performing after months of insufficient sleep. 

 

Crack on

I hope you’ve found today’s tips helpful. If you give them a go, do get in touch via social media to let us know how you get on! 

Written by Greg Potter