Sleep: Why it’s so important for footballers & Who’s utilising a bit of shut eye?

Getting a good night’s sleep has often been seen as a nuisance, although the more study that has gone into it, the more we’ve seen the benefits that a good night’s kip can provide – especially for athletes – but just how much does it aid footballers, and who’s taking advantage.

I’ve been catching up on some reading recently and the September edition of ‘FourFourTwo’ has a great feature on Nick Littlehales – footballs first sleep coach.

Littlehales after a chat with Sir Alex Ferguson was invited to present to the Manchester United dressing room in the mid 90’s on the requirement of a good sleep. Before he knew it, Littlehales was sourcing mattresses for some of the English Premierships top stars and by Euro 2004; he was inspecting every bedroom at the England team’s hotel to make sure the sleeping arrangements were adequate.

“Having put long-term ambitions to open a furniture shop on hold, Littlehales set off travelling the world to educate some of the world’s biggest sports teams on the impact of sleep of performance.”

Sleep really is a lot more complicated than going to bed eight hours before your alarm goes off. Physical and mental restoration is incredibly key to performing, be it in an office, a kitchen, on a football pitch or anywhere else, to your full ability.

A regular and consistent schedule is absolutely integral according to leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker, speaking to the Guardian:

“Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what.”

“I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?”

Walker continued to elaborate on benefits sleep brings:

“During REM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting,”

“There’s a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Researchers were once fooled that this state was similar to a coma. But nothing could be further from the truth. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on.”

“To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for.”

REM sleep is the final stage of sleep you will reach in a sleep cycle and the stage you generally dream during. Sleeping long enough to get to this stage is extremely important for athletes in order to heal aches and pains.

In order to achieve optimum sleep, an individual needs to focus on more than just their time spent in bed. According to mentalhealth.org.uk “What you eat and drink can affect your sleep. Stimulants like caffeine can make it harder to sleep, and a heavy surgery meal close to bedtime can make sleep uncomfortable.”

That’s just the basics that most people know though. Listen to the coaches of high profile athletes like Connor McGregor and you can hear just how every little aspect of McGregor’s lifestyle is controlled in order to maintain the best performance, and sleep, possible. When he eats and what he eats, when he has a workout. It is all meticulously calculated for the best results.

According to the national sleep foundation, many people, even athletes, seriously underestimate the impact of sleep deprivation. Heavy eyes and a need for coffee aren’t the only affects suffered.

The foundation says:

“Exercise depletes energy, fluids, and breaks down muscle. Hydration and the right fuel are only part of training and recovery. What athletes do in the moments during and immediately after competition also determines how quickly their bodies rebuild muscle and replenish nutrients. This helps maintain endurance, speed, and accuracy.”

“Some research suggests that sleep deprivation increases levels of stress hormone, cortisol. Sleep deprivation has also been seen to decrease production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use during physical activity. In short, less sleep increases the possibility of fatigue, low energy, and poor focus at game time. It may also slow recovery post-game.”

So which football clubs are trying to utilise a well-managed sleeping schedule?

It’s no surprise to hear that many English Premier League clubs are splashing the cash to get their players such fantastic shut eye. It was actually some of the smaller clubs, such as Crystal Palace and Swansea that started to introduce the idea of players sleeping at the training ground between double training sessions – Even bringing in sleeping pods.

Those pods have now mostly been discarded according to the Sun earlier this year, but the obsession with a good nap hasn’t been.

Manchester City have allocated rooms in their onsite hotel for players. Equipped fully with en-suites and sleep inducing wallpaper. Bournemouth are flying high this season and has that potentially come down to the fact manager Eddie Howe has his players wear orange tinted glasses before bed. Designed to offset the impact of lights from phones and televisions from preventing sleep.

Arsenal player Granit Xhaka tested out a range of new sleep products for his sponsor – Under armour.  These included special lightbulbs, a new mattress and similar glasses to those given out to Bournemouth players.

Speaking to FourFourTwo, the Swiss international said of the experiment:

“I’ve noticed that I wake up a lot calmer, and I don’t use my phone until I leave the house in the morning.”

“My sleep is more intense and a lot deeper.”

These types of methods were being explored earlier in some other countries. For example, Aidan McGeady revealed that individual sleeping rooms were utilised during his stint in Russia. As far back as 2010, Spartak Moscow were encouraging players to get some shut eye in their training ground rooms between sessions of training.

Wearable tech has also become incredibly helpful in monitoring sleep. It’s great to be able to do all the things that should provide a better slumber, but unless you are monitoring your shut eye time, how do you know that you’ve made improvements?

The general public might use a Fitbit or another type of fitness watch, while they provide a great basic insight, footballers will mostly be using far more sophisticated tech. Allowing players and their medical teams to analyse every minute of a night’s sleep.

At the end of the day, not every sleep pattern and schedule works for everyone. Just like diets, workouts and methods of learning – everyone finds a way that suits them. So it’s incredibly important for an athlete, who perhaps struggles more to find something to fit, to study the results they get from different tactics. Just like they’d do with a game of football.

The FourFourTwo article that inspired this article was titled ‘The secret science of sleep’. Although the evidence from that very article, and studies we’ve presented here, suggested it’s not so much of a secret anymore.

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