How Elite Athletes Can Optimize Sleep for Peak Performance, with Jesse D. Cook, MS

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Cook explains to HCPLive how elite athletes can optimize sleep for peak performance.

With the summer solstice past us and Americans getting in their patriot spirit today with their barbecues, red-white-and-blue outfits, and fireworks for the Fourth of July, the season of the sweltering heat and beach days has arrived.

It also means it is officially the Summer Olympics season, which begins in only a few weeks on July 26, 2024. With the Olympics on its way, it is crucial to address the importance of sleep for elite athletes.

A month ago, Jesse D. Cook, MS, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented on optimizing elite athletes’ sleep for peak performance at SLEEP 2024 in Houston. At the conference, HCPLive sat down with Cook to discuss sleep optimization and personalized sleep strategies for elite athletes.

Cook said sleep helps acute functioning day-to-day and long-term health. For athletes, good sleep brings quicker and clearer thoughts, faster speed, and better emotional regularity.

“So, when you're actually in competition, you're able to perform in a manner you want to, rather than letting your emotions affect you,” Cook told HCPLive.

Sleep recommendations depend on age, varying throughout a lifespan. For instance, adolescents are recommended to have 8 – 10 hours of sleep, and a young to middle adult is recommended to sleep for 7 – 9 hours.

“A bigger part of this puzzle is the fact that the circadian rhythm, this biological clock inside of us, plays such a key role in regulating sleep and wake, and we must be mindful that there are variations in that inter-individually,” Cook said. “For me, I'm a morning lark, and so the timing of my sleep probably should be different from someone who has circadian characteristics that are more [evening-based]. And if we don't factor those things into the equation, we might be actually doing more harm than good from trying to structure a schedule.”

Travel impacts an elite athlete’s sleep, such as traveling through time zones and experiencing an acute disruption to the circadian rhythm. Even traveling far distances without a time zone change can significantly impact performances.

Sitting in cramped spaces—whether that be cars, airplanes, or busses—is not optimal for blood flow which can affect recovery after a sporting event. Travel can ultimately put a lot of stress on the body, and this begs the question of how much training athletes need to avoid overtraining and the negative effects of travel.

Research has shown sleeping longer, taking less time to fall asleep, or staying asleep better brings observable benefits for athletes, such as improved free throw percentage, improved 3-point percentage, and increased VO2 Max.

“A big question becomes… how meaningful are these in the actual game performance themselves? Some of the research that I've done has shown that, yes, we see these changes. However, it's unclear,” Cook said. “Scientifically, they’re significant, but when it comes to the game, actual scenario, does it have a meaningful impact on the game? Perhaps [that] is true, and we just need more research and more cohesion between teams to do that.”

References

Bender, A, Cook, J, Mah, C. Helping Elite Athletes Optimize Sleep for Peak Performance. Session presented at SLEEP 2024 on June 4, 2024 in Houston TX.


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