The Winning Sleep Habits of 7 Pro Athletes
Last Updated: Jul 26, 2017
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When you aren’t getting enough sleep you can feel it in your body. Now imagine if you were an Olympian running on a few hours of sleep a day. As part of their profession, athletes have to stay alert, focused and challenge their bodies to new performance heights, which is why we’re taking a few sleeping pointers from the pros.
While exercise, diet and training are crucial to maximizing the abilities of professional athletes, more and more athletes have recently started talking about sleep as a performance enhancer as well.
Even if you aren’t facing the demanding physical stress of training for a competitive sport, you can take some good pointers from these athletes on how to maximize productivity and health.
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American swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian ever. He holds the all-time record for Olympic gold medals. Recently, Phelps has come out of retirement at the age of 30 to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this month.
Phelps is infamous for consuming more than 10,000 calories a day, but one thing you may not know about his training routine is that he experiments with high-altitude sleeping.
As Phelps prepared for the 2012 Olympics, he spent a year sleeping in a specially designed high-altitude chamber that creates a low-oxygen environment (similar to being at the top of a 9,000-foot mountaintop). For swimmers, this sleeping method has been shown to improve reaction time off the starting block by as much as 17 percent.
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LeBron James has won three NBA Championships, four NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, three NBA Finals MVP awards, and two Olympic gold medals. James is naturally talented, but one thing that might set him apart from the competition is that he sleeps for 12 hours each night.
When athletes combine plenty of sleep with nutrition and exercise their performance skyrockets. According to a Stanford University study, players on the men’s varsity basketball team who got 10 hours of sleep each night for five consecutive weeks could run faster, improved their reaction times and increased their free throw and three-pointers success rate by 9 percent. The players also reported feeling better both mentally and physically during games and practice.
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Shannon Miller is the most decorated gymnast — male or female — in U.S. history. She was the 1993 and 1994 World All-Around Champion, the 1996 Olympics balance beam gold medalist, the 1995 Pan Am Games all-around champion and a member of the gold medal-winning Magnificent Seven team at the Atlanta Olympics.
During competition and training, she made sure to get at least eight hours of sleep (and more whenever possible).
Naps were also a big part of her life. Miller remembers, “I pretty much took a nap every day from the time I started intensive training to the time I retired, which was about a decade. People would find me catching a power nap in all sorts of places on a bus or plane — and even in the splits. I learned early on that sleeping was just as important to my training as conditioning, stretching and skills. I had to give my body and my mind time to recover.”
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THE REAL MADRID FOOTBALL TEAM
The Real Madrid Football Team boast one of the best squads in the world. They train hard, but at 1 p.m. every afternoon their training facility grinds to a halt as staff and players take a two-hour siesta before resuming training.
Real Madrid even brought in a sleep expert to assess the sleep environment of each of the players, including temperature, lighting, air quality, duvet type and mattresses. Star players Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale requested one-on-one sleep consultations based on their body characteristics, daily routines, intensity of activities and sleep habits.
All players are advised not to consume caffeine and high sugar beverages, as well as heavy or fatty meals in the evening as they take longer to digest. (The digestion process raises your body temperature at exactly the time you want to be cooling off to facilitate deep sleep.) Additionally, players drink milk-based protein drinks to aid in muscle recovery and to help induce sleepiness.
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SIR CHRIS HOY
The most successful Olympic cyclist, Sir Chris Hoy believes sleep is so important to his training that he has his own personal sleep coach, Nick Littlehales.
Littlehales designed a lightweight, fold-up mattress for Hoy that he had delivered to each hotel he stayed at during the Tour de France — even taking it into five-star hotels. Training upward of 35 hours per week, Hoy requires eight hours of sleep every night to be at his best.
Littlehales tells his clients that they shouldn’t wake up in the morning feeling as if they could sleep for two more hours. If that is the case, factors like temperature, light, noise and air quality may be affecting your sleep quality and need to be examined. In Hoy’s case, you also need to sleep on something that fits your height, shape and weight.
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The interior of a NASCAR racecar can reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit during a race. On top of the heat, drivers are typically racing for 500 laps at more than 200 mph with limited airflow. At that speed and for almost three hours they have to maneuver a 3,400-pound car around curves, other cars and debris.
Drivers have to be able to maintain alertness and have quick reflexes in order to safely drive their cars. No one wants to make a miscalculation at 200 mph. Mistakes at that speed are fatal.
Professional racecar driver Kurt Busch, who competes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and has won 25 Cup races, including the 2004 NASCAR Nextal Cup Series Championship, prioritizes sleep. He gets at least eight-and-a-half hours per night to ensure he can maintain concentration and focus during long races and that his response times to incidents on the track are quick, keeping things safer for everyone.
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At the age of 10, Michelle Wie became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship. Wie also became the youngest winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and the youngest to qualify for a LPGA Tour event. She turned professional shortly before her 16th birthday in 2005, and she won her first major at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open.
All teenagers need extra sleep, but being a professional athlete requires even more! Wie shared with Golf Digest, “I slept for 16 hours once. Early in the week of the Sony Open I went to bed at 9 p.m. and woke up at 1 p.m. the next day. When I can, I’ll sleep more than 12 hours, and I don’t feel very good if I get less than 10. The best thing about that is, there is no such thing as jet lag for me. I can sleep anywhere. Don’t be offended, but I could fall asleep right now.”
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
How much sleep do you get each night? What are some things you do or don't do before bed to ensure a good night's rest? Will you be trying any of these techniques?
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