Too often, we consider sleep to be more of a luxury than anything else. We live in a world where time is money, and time that’s not money, is time spent trying to have a fulfilling social life on top of aiding your own self-care. I know I personally struggle with sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, and my days are always busy, so I can only imagine how difficult it must be for professional athletes to clock in a solid six to eight hours of sleep per night during training. I mean, how much sleep do Olympic athletes get, anyway? Between the intense competitions and constant adrenaline highs, I assume it’s probably no small feat winding down at the end of the day, but at the same time, I’m exhausted just thinking about their workout schedules.
Look at it this way: It’s not like these competitors woke up one morning, poured themselves a bowl of Cap'n Crunch, and thought, mid-soggy bite, “I’m going to try out for the Olympics today.” These men and women set these goals years in advance, and in order to even come close to qualifying, they're committed — mind, body, and soul — to their training schedules.
Need I remind you that there are only 24 hours in a day? For an outsider looking in, I’ve always assumed that Olympic athletes must be a class of superhumans all their own who operate on four hours of shut-eye max, with the occasional cat nap weaved into their day to sustain energy in between training sessions. But according to Dr. Mark Rosekind, a sleep specialist who has conducted research with companies like NASA and Alertness Solutions, this could not be further from the truth.
A regular sleep schedule is vital for Olympic athletes to stay healthy and perform to the best of their abilities during a competition.
News flash, friends: The secret to optimal performance isn’t found in some chemical-infused protein drink, in your daily caffeine fix, or in products that gauge your interest with hours-long infomercials that trap you at 2 a.m. And, thanks in large part to researchers like Dr. Rosekind, Olympic athletes have it all figured out. The key to winning that shiny gold medal isn't just about lifting heavy at the gym and maintaining a strict diet; it's a combination of hard work, dedication, and a lot of high-quality sleep.
Despite society's way of glamorizing lack of sleep as some sort of martyr’s act to, in a sense, “take one for the team” and get the job done, failing to meet the basic sleep requirements the average human needs to function, more often than not, backfires. Dr. Rosekind told Huffington Post,
Sleep is like food, water and air. The basic biological need that humans have to have to survive, but you want to go beyond survival. That means you want to optimize your sleep and realize it has value. It’s going to enhance your performance, safety and mood.
In order to make sure these athletes get enough shut-eye, Dr. Rosekind suggested a calming bedtime routine and ways to make their sleep space more comfortable.
I can personally vouch for this one, guys: Creating and sticking to a nighttime routine that really hones in on what helps your individual body wind down after a long day really does make a difference in terms of how well you sleep. For me, that means shutting down all electronics at least an hour before bed, washing my face, brushing my teeth, and reading a chapter of a good book (an actual hard copy — no screens allowed under the covers).
For an Olympic athlete, that might mean taking more extreme measures. Whether they’re practicing for eight hours a day, or hopping on one plane to the next, Olympic athletes are always go-go-go. Not only are they dealing with the exhaustion that comes with being a professional competitive athlete, they’re also grappling with things like jet lag.
To combat the overwhelming fatigue these competitors must feel, Dr. Rosekind encourages them to enhance their sleep space by hanging up blackout curtains, using white noise machines to lull them to sleep, and plugging in dawn-simulator alarm clocks to wake up gently with gradual lighting instead of a shrieking bell. As for bedtime behaviors, it's all about relaxation, and doing things like taking a warm bath, wearing comfy pajamas, and avoiding caffeine.
Athlete or not, you have to figure out what works best for you to get the sleep your body needs.
OK, so Olympians may not actually be superhuman, but they do have special circumstances that probably make them more tired than the average human, and some athletes go to interesting extremes to meet their sleepy-time needs.
For example, it was reported that during his prime in 2012, Michael Phelps revealed in an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes that his restful state was all thanks to a high-altitude sleeping chamber. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds. He basically has a giant box positioned in the middle of his bedroom, in which the air is the equivalent to 8,500 to 9,000 feet. Whether we think this is normal or not, Phelps swore it took his performance to the next level. Whatever floats your boat, Mike.
Olympic marathon runner Ryan Hall's sleep strategy, on the other hand, is way more relatable. Bustle reports that, according to Arianna Huffington's book Thrive, Hall clocks in eight to nine hours of shut-eye per night, and he schedules a solid 90-minute nap into his day for "an afternoon rest."
Like anything else, everyone's sleep schedule is going to depend on their individual needs. Whether it's blackout curtains (highly recommend, BTW), a warm mug of moon milk, or an altitude chamber, find what works for you and stick to it. Your body will thank you in the long run.
Erin Jackson is an inline skating world medalist and roller derby MVP. She dreamed of skating in the Olympics, but to do that, she had to get on ice. She took her first steps on a long-track course in 2016 and started training professionally in September 2017. Four months later, she qualified for the Olympic Winter Games. Check out Elite Daily Insights' video on Jackson's incredible story: