Sunday, March 31, 2024

Even Olympic Athletes Do Not Sleep Well

Thinking of winning even while sleeping
I managed to have an extra bike ride this week due to the Good Friday Public Holiday. If you include my regular Saturday bike ride, I rode 88 km a day on both days. Partly due to the heat, I felt extra tired, and did not sleep as well as I would have liked.

Whether you are an athlete or not you need to sleep. In theory, athletes need to sleep a lot, since sleep can boost performance, protect against injury and even help recovery. I have written before that a lack of sleep can lead to negative consequences. It can affect your mood, cognitive function and physical performance.

Ever wonder if champion athletes are also champion sleepers? Or they sleep just as badly as average athletes?

A recently published paper studied the sleep habits of more than 1600 Olympic and Paralympic USA athletes in the lead up to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The athletes filled up a Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) for that study.

The study compared the typical sleep pattern for male versus female athletes, summer versus winter Olympians and team versus individual sports.     

You may be surprised to know that almost 40 percent of athletes were rated as having poor sleep based on their PSQI scores. The scores accounted for how long they typically sleep, how often their sleep is disturbed, how long before they fall asleep and whether sleep medications were taken.

The results were similar to that of Dutch Olympic athletes (41 percent poor sleepers) and Australian Olympic athletes (52 percent poor sleepers).

A goal of the study was to provide what was normal values for athletes training hard compared to the general population on whom the PSQI was first tested. The PSQI has a maximum score of 21, the higher the number indicating a greater number or greater severity of sleep problems. A score of 5 and above classifies you as a poor sleeper. The average among the USA Olympians was 4.3. 

25 percent scored above 6 while 10 percent scored above 8 and 5 percent scored above 10. The top scorer was 16 while the lowest got zero (I am definitely envious)!

Reasons for the poor sleep? An early training session at 6 am will definitely affect sleep. Those athletes traveling across time zones to get to training camps/ races/ competitions will also be affected. If your legs or arms are aching from hard training ( I can testify to that), or if your heart/ mind is racing before a competition , you will not sleep well. That's my personal experience too.

The results do not specify what is happening exactly, but they do suggest that a serious athlete typically scores 5 or 6 on the PSQI, so they are classified as a 'poor sleeper'.

This study by Anderson et al (2024) has more subjects compared to previous similar studies which allows the data to be cetegorized into sub categories. Here is what else was reported. Female athletes had poorer sleep quality (4.7 versus 3.9) than men even though they went to bed earlier.

The female athletes were also less likely to report falling asleep straight away after going to bed. They were also more likely to report using sleep medication. A possibility is the variation in sex hormones across the menstrual cycle which may interfere with sleep, although no mechanism was found in this study. 

Team sports athletes got up earlier and had poorer sleep than individual sport athletes although this was not what previous studies found.. Perhaps a team mate who got up earlier caused the rest of the team to get up earlier as well?

May I boldly suggest that all the sub patterns were confounded by a huge variety of sports in this study. A runner is not equal to a tennis player or swimmer. Competition timings will play a part as well since most marathons are held in the early mornings compared to the later starts in some other sports. Especially those held in the late evenings. 

Defintely sleep is a great untapped frontier. Since 40 percent of Olympic athletes are poor sleepers, imagine one's advantage if you can improve or even master sleep.

Is good sleep "nice to have" rather than "need to have" for achieving sporting excellence? Or you may even argue that sleep may not be that important if all these Olympians are not sleeping well and are good enough still to compete at those lofty levels. 

Personally I do think sleep is important for sporting performance as well as keeping you sane during the day. 

On a side note, I will add that the cost to mental health is significant too, especially for the general population. Sleep problems may increase risk for developing certain mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders, as well as result from them. In this age of poor mental health among the young, are they getting enough sleep to begin with?

If you're an athlete, take your sleep habits seriously, but remember that if you still have problems, you are in Olympic level company.


Anderson T, Galan-Lopez N, Taylor L et al (2024).Sleep Quality In Team USA Olympic And Paralympic Athletes. Int J Sp Physiol Perform. 19(4): 383-392. DOI: 10.1123/ijspp.2023-0317

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