Many of us cheered on our favorite athletes and teams during the recently completed Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Former WSU sleep research assistant Amy Bender (left) had a rooting interest in the Canadian “women’s eight” rowing team (eight rowers plus coxswain). After earning her Ph.D. from WSU in 2015, Bender became a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Calgary and the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance.
Last spring, the team’s coaches approached the centre, concerned their athletes weren’t recovering well from their training. The centre’s researchers had done an earlier study with members of the Canadian curling team and agreed to work with the rowers.
During the three-week study Bender said the athletes were asked to do three things:
- increase the amount of time they sleep at night,
- add a 20-minute nap during the day, and
- eliminate bad light by wearing blue-light blocking glasses two hours before bedtime and to stop using technology for one hour before going to bed.
Team member Lisa Roman (right), a WSU graduate from Langley, British Columbia, said the changes didn’t seem natural at first.
“I’m a busy body. I don’t sit down much even when I’m done training, so it was hard to force myself to have a short nap in the middle of the day,” she said. “And at night, instead of being downstairs hanging out on the couch, I forced myself to get into bed pretty early. “
When the three weeks were up, Bender said the athletes reported they did sleep more and were generally more satisfied with their amount of rest.
“I did feel a change with my ability to sustain a high level of performance throughout the entire week,” Roman said. “Getting more sleep also seemed to help my attitude towards training. The daily naps helped me feel more rested throughout the day.”
But given the brevity of the study and the fact that time passed between it and the Olympics, Bender said there was no way to know if the extra ZZZs they caught during those three weeks led to better performances. The team did qualify for the Olympic finals race and finished fifth overall.
“We were hoping for a medal but fifth in the world is a great accomplishment,” Bender said. “I am hoping they will use the sleep interventions for next year in order to help mitigate fatigue across an entire season.”
Bender expects this study will lead to sleep research involving other elite Canadian athletes, including long-track speed skaters.
Lisa Roman said even though her role is over, she has learned to appreciate the value of sleep.
“I now take my morning sleep-ins when I can. If I feel tired I don’t try to just push through. I just take the 20-minute nap and then get on with my day,” she said.