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Volunteers walk by giant welcome murals near the entrance to Olympic Park at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)
Volunteers walk by giant welcome murals near the entrance to Olympic Park at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

Why getting enough sleep can make the difference between winning and losing Add to ...

Figure skater Jeremy Abbott can be forgiven if he chuckled at the headlines when the athletes quarters were unveiled in Sochi, Russia, this week: “Canada’s millionaire hockey players to sleep in tiny beds.”

A long-time insomniac, the reigning U.S. champion knows too well how difficult it can be to nod off on an Olympic-sized single. This time, he came prepared.

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“I brought a queen-sized air mattress,” he told NBC News, even though it weighs more than 11 kilograms and took up an entire suitcase. “I did not do well on the twin bed in Vancouver.”

A medal contender in 2010, he wound up ninth, a disappointment he blames, in large part, on his inability to sleep.

The “millionaires” have played down the prospect of living in cramped quarters that Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban called “interesting” before joking about how he snores.

But sleep deprivation is a growing problem across the social spectrum. A recent survey showed that clinically significant insomnia affects 10 to 20 per cent of North Americans, making them less productive workers and causing health problems that range from irritability to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Even more dire, and increasingly common, obstructive sleep apnea interrupts the breath of those who doze off and, according to a 2011 U.S. study, is linked to “a significantly increased risk of sudden cardiac death.”

Lack of rest is such a hot topic that this week Apple was rumoured to have recruited a leading sleep expert to work on its much-anticipated (and highly secret) iWatch. Among its many features, the digital “smartwatch” is expected to track an owner’s sleeping habits and offer advice on how to improve them.

For elite athletes, problems with maintaining a routine are often magnified. To train and compete, many must travel the globe and, despite having to leapfrog time zones, be at their best when the moment of truth arrives.

But how important is rest to people with physical abilities so superior to the rest of us?

Athletic officials are beginning to take that question very seriously, with Canada’s Olympic program the first in the world to assess and manage the rest and recovery habits of its athletes.

On the southern outskirts of Calgary, next to a row of office buildings, there is a little medical centre with four bedrooms and a waiting list to get in. A sign in the office of the man in charge reads, “Damn, I’m good in bed. I can sleep for hours.”

That expertise is what draws insomniacs from police officers, pilots and flight attendants to nurses and shift workers of all stripes to Dr. Charles Samuels and the Calgary Centre for Sleep and Human Performance.

The patient list also includes Canadian medal hopefuls because Own The Podium, the largely government-funded Olympic program, has come to appreciate the role of sleep in preparing for international competition.

“Quite frankly,” Dr. Samuels says, “we’re the only country in the world that has a structured evaluation of sleep for all its elite athletes in the Olympic system, paralympic and abled-bodied – that exceeds a thousand athletes.”

Having gathered Olympic data since 2007, he has helped to put Canada at the leading edge, and now travels the world lecturing on the power of positive sleeping.

“By working with athletes, we’re working with a select population that we believe should be healthy and able to do everything normally,” Dr. Samuels says. “And interestingly, no, that is not the case.”

It’s not that athletes suffer more from sleep disorders than the general public – the issue is more what happens when their problems are solved.

“My focus is on the long-term management of their sleep as a tool for recovery,” Dr. Samuels says, explaining that there are only three other such tools: nutrition, hydration and being immersed in cold water.

“The athletes are wonderful because they say, ‘I didn’t realize what I was doing negatively affected my sleep, and I didn’t know what the benefit would be once I paid attention to this.’ ”

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