This is the fifth of a nine-part print and online series looking at the science of sleep and the vital role of sleep in maintaining overall health.
One of the truisms of being a professional athlete is the constant travel. East Coast. West Coast. Late-night games and overnight flights. There is no escaping the draining demands of criss-crossing the continent, sandwiched between arena stops where the athletes are expected to deliver their absolute best on any given day.
Finding the time to get enough quality sleep to maintain that level of athletic ability has consequently never been of greater importance to coaches and training staff.
"For us it came into play with managing time zones because we cross so many time zones and we have so many games in such a short period of time," says Sam Gibbs, the head athletic therapist for the Canadian men's national basketball program. Currently in Mexico City trying to qualify for next year's Rio Olympics, the team faces the daunting prospect of potentially playing 10 games in 12 days, all the while staying in unfamiliar beds in random hotel rooms.
To help manage this, Mr. Gibbs spent a recent Toronto training camp compiling data about his players' sleep habits, establishing baselines that can be used if their training and game performance start to lag.
The team uses three tools to measure the sleep patterns of players such as NBA rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins.
The first is a simple questionnaire, given to the players in the morning, that asks them about their sleep and any sources of stress that may have compromised their rest.
The second is a piece of technology from a company in Finland called the Omegawave. Using a trio of sensors, one placed on the hand, one on the forehead and another on a band around the chest, the Omegawave conducts a four-minute assessment of a player's nervous system. It then provides scores from one to seven in such categories as endurance, strength, and speed and power.
"It is a measure of your nervous system's ability to recover," Mr. Gibbs says. "So we look at recovery, of which sleep is a part. If you sleep poorly then it'll show an interference with that, and if we see a trend over a number of days we start looking for where the holes might be."
The third is another piece of technology from Finland called Beddit. It is essentially a five-centimetre-wide strip of plastic with a sensor at one end that is placed under the bedsheets and plugged into the wall via a USB port. Beddit then communicates with a smartphone during the night, collecting data on such things as movement, body temperature, heart rate and breathing.
Still, Mr. Gibbs acknowledges that all the data is just a tool to manipulate performance. "The machine never lies," he says, "but it doesn't tell the whole truth, so we don't base everything off that."
The data allow the trainers to find underlying causes to problems that players might be facing. For example, sleeping in a poor position, or with an ill-fitting pillow, may be causing back or neck pain. The three tools allow exploration of what may really be going on when a player beds down for the night.
The technology is unobtrusive and requires very little effort on the players' part. Beddit transmits the data directly to the trainers, while the questionnaire and Omegawave processes are done right before breakfast.
"All a player has to do is walk into the room and there are measures being taken," Mr. Gibbs says. "That is the ideal for us because there's no operator error, they don't have to think about it, it's a natural environment and we get better from it."
But while the cost of the technology may push it out of reach for recreational athletes or weekend warriors, sleep lessons can be applied to almost anyone looking to improve their game.
"The importance of sleep is there," says Bryan Smith, the Toronto Central area manager for Running Room Canada Inc. and a recreational runner himself, who helps the Running Room put on clinics covering all aspects of running, including basics such as nutrition and rest.
Acknowledging that it varies by individual, he stresses "the majority of us could benefit from seven to nine hours of sleep."
Mr. Smith recommends simple adjustments to get there, such as getting just an extra half hour a night. He also says it's important to try to get as many hours of sleep as one can before midnight.
Sleeping in a pitch-black environment is also a good idea, he says, so using a sleep mask or covering up or turning around the alarm clock on your night stand might be worth exploring.
"Get rid of light noise as best as possible," he says. "If you open your eyes and you can see something, it's activating the brain."
When competing in events, Mr. Smith stresses the importance of sticking to your normal routine with regards to eating and bedtime, and getting a good night's sleep two nights out from the event, just in case anxiety interferes with a restful night.
"If you can create the environment for sleep and for rest that allows you to feel rested … then you've set yourself up for success," he says.
Tips for athletic success
Bryan Smith, a Toronto Central area manager for Running Room Canada Inc., offers these tips for amateur athletes.
1. Hydrate daily – drink at least three litres of water each day.
2. Try to go to bed at about the same time every night.
3. The earlier you can get to bed before midnight the better.
4. Try not to eat too late into the evening. Stop eating at least two hours before bedtime.
5. Don't sleep in on the weekends – stick with a routine.
6. Get some physical activity every day.