The Londoner: Canuck rowers catching more Zs

The London-based National Women’s Rowing Team has added an important tool to their training arsenal ahead of the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil: afternoon naps.

Rowing Canada trainers concerned with the sleeping habits of their Olympians have reached out for help from the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, a private clinic that often works with elite athletes.

The daily 20-minute snoozes are part of a trio of specific sleep improvements recommended by Amy Bender, a sleep and athletic performance researcher and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology. Bender’s sleep recommendations are also part of a study she spearheaded with the rowers in May and June funded by Mitacs (a national nonprofit dedicated to building research partnerships) and Own the Podium.

Olympic silver-medalist Natalie Mastracci, a member of the women’s eight, said Bender’s suggestions are helping many rowers find more energy to keep up with an intense pre-Games training schedule.

“The little nuances to what (Bender) was telling us about how we could get sleep, or how we could incorporate a better schedule to put sleep at the centre of our recovery, really made the difference,” she explained. “We rarely think about the parts where we’re at rest to be able to get more out of the parts where we’re active, but if you can get more out of your rest, then it’s saving up for that time when … you have to turn it on. It gives us the ability to get that little extra one per cent out.”

Besides napping, Bender also recommended an extra hour of sleep for each athlete in the evening and addressed the amount of time the rowers were spending in front of screens before bedtime. She recommended blue light-blocking glasses for athletes unwilling to part with their smartphone, tablet or television an hour before lights out.

“We’re especially sensitive to the blue light that’s coming from our electronic devices,” Bender said, pointing to other studies that suggest reading a book in print makes for a better pre-sleep activity than reading one on an e-reader, for example.

Blue light (which can also be reduced through software available for most devices) can negatively impact a person’s melatonin levels, shift their internal clock, and cause more frequent wake-ups during the night, Bender explained.

Although she’s still analyzing performance data, Bender said only 23 per cent of the athletes in the study were satisfied with the quality of their sleep before trying her recommendations. After two months, that number jumped to 77 per cent.

About 75 per cent of the participating athletes were able to increase their nighttime sleep or napping during the study, which included an individualized plan for each rower.

Which recommendations worked best and why many athletes were only able to incorporate one or two of the three suggestions are questions that will have to wait, Bender said. In the meantime, she’ll be in contact with the team when they leave for Rio August 1.

“We’re hoping that we’ll use these individual plans we gave them going into Rio and make slight adjustments depending on when their training times are and when they have to compete,” Bender said. “We’ll adjust the plans a little bit so that (they’re) more compatible with the Rio schedule.”

Mastracci joined the women’s eight about two years prior to the boat’s silver medal-winning performance at the 2012 Games. This time around, Mastracci said she has enjoyed seeing her teammates grow over a full four-year cycle. This year’s eight includes Caileigh Filmer, Susanne Grainger, Cristy Nurse, Lisa Roman, Christine Roper, Antje von Seydlitz, Lauren Wilkinson, and coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie.

“I think that our boat is leader-full,” Mastracci said. “I may lead in one aspect and Leslie will lead in a different one or Cristy will lead in a different one. We all know our roles to play and we form this kind of engine that really works with a lot of moving parts.”

Over the past three years, Mastracci said the team has been able to visit Rio for training camps. Being accustomed to conditions at the venue is helpful, Mastracci said.

The team is also being closely advised on some of the health concerns currently swirling around the Games. Mastracci said the team feels comfortable enough to focus squarely on being fast.

“We’ve been allowed to go to Rio and do some staging camps and so we have a familiarity with it already and we know what to expect. We’ve been able to row on the course, we feel very prepared going to these Olympics.”


Byline: Chris Montanini, The Londoner