Calgary Herald: Better sleep means a better shot at a medal for Canada’s rowing team, UoC study finds

If you don’t snooze, you’re more likely to lose.

That’s the message taking part in a sleep enhancement study seems to have delivered to the Canadian women’s eight rowing team now pulling towards the Olympic podium in Rio, says a University of Calgary researcher.

After running through several weeks of a slumber regimen, most of the athletes say they’ve improved their sleeping along with their mindset and performance, said Amy Bender, a researcher at the U of C’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Centre for Sleep and Human Performance.

“Going from a quarter to three-quarters of them seeing improvement is a huge jump,” said Bender.

“It has to do with the interventions they’re using and they had improvements in their mood… their tension and anxiety were reduced.”

With an inkling that more and better downtime could enhance their performance on the water, Bender and the rowers mapped the athletes’ sleep routine last May then set out to change it.

The study used relaxation methods and reduced the amount of late night time spent in front of computer screens whose blue light interrupts sleep patterns, said Bender.

“In the two hours before bed they used blue light blocking glasses or other technology and we tried to have them stay off their devices for an hour before sleep,”  she said, adding there were challenges.

“They weren’t actually too good at putting away their devices.”

Even so, the new approach that also included the quick refreshment from 20-minute naps enhanced the rowers’ ability to concentrate and recover from practise exertions, said both trainers and athletes, like team member Natalie Mastracci.

“I used to put sleep on the back burner, but making it a priority has helped my training and now I’m more alert, positive and ready to push harder in practise,” she said.

Much of that is due to sleep period that increased from four to six hours a night to eight or nine hours, said Mastracci.

Far from being a tonic for older people, daytime napping is also a vital boost to athletes’ energy, said Bender.

“Short periods can be of great benefit, but longer sleeps during the day can do the opposite by having that groggy effect,” she said.

Bender said she’s not expecting the sleep techniques — embedded in research funded by not-for-profit organization Mitacs — to mean gold for the women rowers, but it could be a factor in getting them to the podium or qualifying.

On Monday, the team failed to qualify for later medal competition but have another opportunity to do so on Wednesday.

Bender says Canadian Olympic swimmers are also undergoing sleep research in hopes of improving performance.

“And we’ll definitely try to apply these interventions at long track speed skating for the winter Olympics,” she said.

It’s an approach that can benefit anyone, she said.

“Sleep seems to have an impact on everything from metabolism to diabetes and heart disease,” said Bender.

Byline: Bill Kaufman