The vital relationship between sleep and athletic performance is once again taking center stage across the global landscape this week as the 2014 Olympic Winter Games play out in Sochi, Russia.
Dr. Michael Gervais, Director of Performance Psychology at California's Pinnacle Performance Center, says Olympic athletes and coaches are well aware of the importance of sleep as it relates to high performance.
"Most of us would agree that elite athletes are required to consistently perform in very demanding environments," Dr. Gervais says. "For U.S. Olympic team athletes, the difference between a personal-best-performance at the Olympic Games and a disappointing performance can be determined by fractions of a second. Athletes tend to easily understand the link between quality sleep and optimal performance - and most agree that quality sleep is fundamental to consistently performing at a very high level."
Since the relationship between sleep deprivation and sports performance first appeared on the radar of medical researchers, studies have consistently pointed to sleep as the most effective natural performance enhancer. Consequently, it's no coincidence that the Olympic athletes with the greatest likelihood of medaling during the Winter Games are those who make sleep a priority in their rigorous training regimens.
So what does it mean to make sleep a priority? Rather than simply allocating more hours to sleep, efforts must be taken to optimize the quality of sleep, the first step of which involves optimizing the sleep environment. By being mindful of potentially sleep-obstructing environmental factors such as light, temperature, and noise, an ideal setting for sleep can be cultivated.
Although many athletes are coy about divulging their dietary and even sleeping habits and superstitious rituals, researchers say technology now plays a major role in how athletes in Sochi and around the world get to sleep faster, stay asleep longer, and benefit from more quality sleep in the process.
One cutting-edge resource in particular gaining popularity among athletes is "pink noise." In the simplest of terms, pink noise refers to sounds that have equal energy per octave, which means it has more low-frequency components than white noise.
An all-natural mechanism praised for facilitating better sleep, studies have found 75% of the people who listened to pink noise enjoyed more restful sleep. As a result, pink noise is believed to hold the key to blocking distractions and relaxing one before bed. It's also the reason why some of the fastest growing sleep solutions are turning away from ineffectual white noise and thinking pink instead.
Last year, for example, a new mobile sleep app called Sleep Genius launched on iOS and Android instantly drew praise from across the medical and scientific communities. Developed by experts in neuroscience, sleep, sound, and music, pink noise plays a central role in the app’s proprietary mix of algorithms, which work to effectively block out outside noise and create a virtual sound cocoon that wraps around the user.
The number of athletes in Sochi using pink noise in their quest for gold isn't known. But what is known is that success in Sochi and anywhere else in competitive athletics is determined by many factors in an athlete’s training. And sleep is one of the most essential.
"We know that sleep loss is going to create significant detriments in performance," confirms Dr. Mark Rosekind, president of Alertness Solutions and a former NASA scientist. "There are lab studies that show that if you're an eight-hour sleeper and you get six hours of sleep, that two-hour difference can impact your performance so that it equates to how you would perform if you had a 0.05 blood-alcohol level."