Why Are Olympians Practising Less And Sleeping More?

If you’re the productivity-inclined sort, obsessed with trimming the fat from your leisure time, then sleep can seem, at best, like a bit of an indulgence. Eight whole hours of pillow time, when you could be up early, carpeing the diem and being all you can be? Some people get by on four, right? Who needs more than, let’s say, six at the outside? Well, probably you...

Why do you need more sleep? Well, for starters those (very occasional) success stories who can get by on a handful of hours-a-night might just be genetically lucky: research conducted by the University of California says that a rare mutation of the DEC2 gene allows around 5% of the population to get by on six hours or less. Anyone else pulling a Netflix late-nighter is probably sleep-deprived – and considering that many scientists believe sleep can help to hardwire in new abilities, the evidence is that sleeping more should actually improve your efficiency, rather than hamstringing it.

‘We still don’t fully understand why we sleep, but the consensus is that one of its functions is to help memory,' says Westfield Health sleep behaviour and environment expert James Wilson. 'Sleep is when the brain consolidates and categorises the events of the day, like sorting out the contents of your computer’s desktop.’ Newly acquired memories, it turns out, are initially unstable, requiring a process of neural strengthening, during sleep, to become accessible and resistant to interference.

According to a review of sleep studies published in 2010, new memories are integrated into our ‘conceptual frameworks’ during different phases of sleep, both preserving the memories in their original form and extracting meaning from them. There’s a theory that this has to happen while we’re asleep, so that your brain doesn’t confuse the activity in your neural circuitry with new experiences. How do you prime your brain for better sleep-learning? The first trick is to be invested in skill acquisition in the first place: passively listening to Japanese vocabulary tapes is unlikely to help, but invest focus, energy and emotion in it and the chances of you holding onto data are better. After that, it’s all about what you do when you actually hit the sack. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Wait Until You’re Actually Sleepy To Head For Bed

‘One of the biggest mistakes people make is not distinguishing between being ‘tired’ and ‘sleepy’, says Wilson. “Go to bed earlier if you’re tired,” is actually bad advice, because if you’re a bad sleeper, you’re tired all the time. Feeling sleepy is where your eyes are drooping – go to bed then. If you just go to bed when you’re tired but then toss and turn for half an hour, the stress hormone cortisol kicks in and messes with melatonin, which is the hormone you need to sleep properly. If I don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, I might get up, go and sit and read or listen to music, and then go back to bed – worrying won’t help.’

‘Sleep is when the brain consolidates your day, like sorting out your computer’s desktop’

2. Don’t Pull An All-Nighter Before A Big Day

‘It’s tempting when you’re revising for an exam to think that staying up late, cramming will help you retain the knowledge for a test the next day,’ says Wilson. ‘But in reality, you won’t be able to consolidate the information. It’s the same if you’re learning to shoot 3-pointers or trying to remember a dance routine – your brain needs downtime to process what you’re learning.’ He says musicians, in studies, show significant improvements in performing new melodies when they perform them after a night’s sleep, while students stuck on a difficult calculus problem have an easier time solving it after some shuteye.

3. Prioritise Pillow-Time Over Practice (Sometimes)

If you’ve dreamed about a new skill you’re trying to master – be it a doing a muscle-up, a judo throw or solving a Rubik’s cube – that’s your brain experimenting with patterns or working out the abstract ‘rules’ for progress. And in some instances, sleeping actually beats extra practise for skill acquisition. 'Probably the most famous case is Dr James Maas, a specialist who was working with a young ice-skater,' says Wilson. 'She was training twice a day – early in the morning and later in the afternoon, and Dr Maas suggested eliminating the early morning practice, to give her eight hours of sleep instead of seven.' The girl was Sarah Hughes who got stronger, got better grades at school, and then went on to win an Olympic gold medal.

4. Don’t Booze When You’re In Learning Mode

Sure, it’s tempting to grab a beer (or three) after your Brazilian jiu-jitsu class/ Japanese study group/ revision session, but you’d be better off with sparkling water – memory consolidation seems to happen during the the first two hours of slow-wave, Non-REM sleep and the last 90 minutes of REM sleeping in the morning. Booze can compromise that crucial first cycle, and undo all of your good work.

5. Set A Regular Wakeup Time – Preferably Without An Alarm Clock

Once you’ve sorted out your first two hours of pillow-time, get to work on that last 90 minutes by  setting a regular wake-up time and sticking to it. ‘Don’t give yourself a weekend lie-in,’ says Wilson. ‘If you’re getting up five hours later on a Saturday, you’re seriously disrupting your circadian rhythms. It’s like going to Florida every weekend – you’re giving yourself jetlag.’

‘Don’t give yourself a lie-in, unless you want jet lag every weekend’

6. Think Caveman Not Space-Age

Your constantly-connected, always-on lifestyle might keep you informed about the latest developments in cat gifs, but it isn’t helping you between the sheets. First, keep electronics out of the bedroom, and ideally switch them off an hour before bed: if that’s too much to hope for, use an app like F.Lux to eliminate blue light from the screen and ease you towards Slumbershire. Next, aim to mimic the conditions that would have signalled bedtime to your paleolithic ancestors: make your bedroom as dark as possible, keep the temperature slightly cool, and avoid pre-bed stimulation like a blast on Battlefield 1 or a Walking Dead binge – it’s the modern equivalent of a pre-bed sabretooth attack. ‘A shower or bath shortly before bed will help to bring your heartrate down and help you relax,’ says Wilson. ‘Magnesium can also help: it lowers stress and can help to regulate cortisol, which keeps you up.’

7. Don’t Stress About It Too Much

Perhaps most important, though, is not worrying if any of this doesn’t work: at least for one night. Stressing about a lack of sleep upregulates cortisol and keeps you awake, and anyway, a single bout of tossing and turning isn’t the end of the world. ‘The evidence is that one night of bad sleep won’t disrupt skill retention too much,’ says Wilson. ‘Instead, think of sleep as something you have to address constantly, like nutrition and exercise. It’s about what you do over the long term, not for one night.’ Remember: an extra hour in bed often beats one in the gym or at the books, so your body and brain will thank you.

WHAT NEXT? Whatever you’re working on this week – learning Japanese, coding in HTML, making sourdough – lock it in by having a quick shower before bed, banishing all electronics from the bedroom, and making sure you get a solid seven hours (or more) of shuteye. Sweet dreams.