Calgary Herald: Calgary sleep specialist helping maximize athletes’ performances

A good night’s sleep is important for everyone’s health, but for elite athletes it is critical for top performance.

Now, thanks to breakthrough work by a University of Calgary researcher, a new online tool can identify sleep issues for athletes and recommend individual treatment plans.

Amy Bender, adjunct professor in the university’s kinesiology department, believes the importance of sleep was often undervalued when it came to subsequent athletic performance. However, she says that attitude is now changing.

Bender is a sleep specialist at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, a private medical lab and testing facility in Calgary. She was seconded to the university to develop the athletic sleep app with help from an engineering student.

Together they loaded previously screened and collected data from dozens of athletes onto the app to allow access to personalized treatment suggestions that can be accessed digitally in real time.

According to Bender, although many people suffer from various sleep disorders, elite athletes are faced with additional challenges.

“Athletes need more sleep because of the physical and mental demands of the sport. So, for example, the normal population needs between seven and nine hours of sleep a night, while an athlete is more in the eight- to 10-hour range,” said Bender.

“Athletes also travel a lot, especially the Canadian national team, who can be travelling to Europe or to Australia. Sleep can be very difficult during that time as they try to adjust to the time changes.

“Then there is napping, which is common among athletes. Typically about two-thirds of athletes nap at least five times a week, so it is important to schedule that as part of their training,” she said.

“Also they can have anxiety issues prior to performance. The night before an important competition they are probably not going to sleep very well. So getting good sleep leading into the competition will help negate that poor night’s sleep,” she added.

Bender has worked with Olympic speedskater Gilmore Junio of Calgary, who has suffered from sleep apnea in the past.

Junio, who is hoping to be successful in the Canadian trials next month so he can once again represent his country in South Korea at the Games in February, discovered because of that condition he was waking up multiple times each night.

His work with Bender has helped him understand the benefits of getting a proper night’s rest.

“One of the most important parts of training is recovery and trying to regenerate and get back to 100 per cent. I think sleep was something I was taking for granted. Working with Amy on improving my sleep and becoming more rested and alert so I can give 100 per cent in all my training sessions was a big benefit,” he said.

“I’ve learned that I need to get used to time changes as soon as possible. I now set my watch right away to the time zone I’m travelling to, so if I’m going to Europe I’ll change my watch as soon as I get onto the plane, so when I hit the ground again I can get over jet lag quickly and be ready to perform,” added Junio.

Mitacs and the National Research Council’s industrial assistance program recently acknowledged Bender’s work with an award for commercialization. Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that brings together companies, government and academia to promote Canadian research and training.

By: Chris Nelson