Sleep on this: Canadian women’s rowing team counts on improved shut-eye to bring home Olympic gold medal

London, ON and Calgary, AB – You snooze, you win. That’s the belief of the Canadian women’s eight rowing team, whose members have been taking action to improve their sleep as a winning strategy to bring home the gold at the Rio Olympics next month.

From sporting blue light-blocking glasses and shutting off electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime, to taking daily 20-minute afternoon naps, and spending at least one hour more in bed at night, the team members reported seeing an improvement in performance as early as one week after implementing the sleep tools.

It’s all part of an extensive study conducted in May and June by a Mitacs researcher at the University of Calgary to improve the quantity and quality of sleep of the 11 team members —whose average age is 25 — in order to increase their energy and mood levels for better performance.

It’s clear the sleep strategy is paying off, according to Amy Bender, Mitacs postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Kinesiology (and Sleep and Athletic Performance Researcher at the Calgary-based Centre for Sleep & Human Performance), who spearheaded the study, which looked at the sleep patterns of the rowers before and after a three-week intervention period where the sleep tools were applied.

Bender — whose research is funded by Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to building research-based partnerships to create a more innovative Canada, and Own the Podium, which aims to help deliver more Olympic medals for Canada — reported that 73 percent of the athletes were able to either increase their nighttime sleep or napping activity during the study, which included an individualized plan for each athlete.

“Only 23 percent of athletes were satisfied with the quality of their sleep at the beginning of the study, but this jumped to 77 percent at the end of the study,” Bender said, adding that after being given sleep strategies, many of the rowers also saw an overall improvement in their mood and energy levels.

“What we found was that not only were the athletes not getting enough sleep at night, but they also weren’t napping, which is very important for athletes,” Bender explained. “As well, 90 per cent of the team members were using technology before bed, which has been proven to affect the quality of sleep.”

Twenty seven-year-old Natalie Mastracci, who has been a member of the women’s senior national rowing team since 2011, said she was surprised at how quickly she found a difference in her mood and stamina shortly after sleeping longer hours, taking naps and using blue light-blocking technology both over her eyes and on her electronics.

“Rowers are into hard work, we don’t usually look at the time we’re lying down to make us perform better, but it’s clear that this strategy works,” said Mastracci, 27, who increased her nighttime sleep to eight or nine hours from her previous four- to six-hour routine. “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 practices.”

According to Ed McNeely, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, the study was commissioned after trainers found a direct correlation between the rowers’ sleep habits and their performance. “The athletes weren’t getting enough sleep considering the amount of physical activity they were getting and as a result, we didn’t see a significant enough improvement in their performance and they weren’t able to recover quickly enough from their training,” he said, explaining that the coaches needed to find a way to get the rowers more sleep so they would increase their speed in the water.

“In just one week after implementing the sleep strategies, several athletes reported decreased muscle soreness and fatigue, and most reported feeling more rested and able to get through the training better,” McNeely said. “The results are significant because even if the sleep of three or four of the athletes is improved, those athletes can step it up and it will have a significant impact on how well the crew can perform and the boats can move.”

McNeely is confident the sleep strategies will provide a competitive advantage as the team heads to Rio next month. “The goal is then to get an earlier start on the sleep strategies for the 2020 Olympics to get maximum benefit from the tools,” he said.

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