For the next couple weeks, the world will come together to watch in awe as the world’s most elite Olympic athletes come together and showcase their incredible—almost superhuman—skill. Every four years, the summer Olympics present us again with these feats of human physicality, and every time we are once again amazed. Because, well, what they can do is amazing.
It’s a combination of factors that allow these athletes to perform so well. Natural ability plays a role, of course, as do intensive training regimens. For many of the athletes, their sport of choice is their full-time profession, meaning it’s what they eat, sleep, and breathe regardless of whether or not it’s an Olympic year. And speaking of sleep, it wouldn’t be too strong of a statement to say that it is as fundamental to their training regimen as the four-hour workouts and protein-filled meals.
We’ve discussed before how important sleep is to athletic performance, but when it comes to the Olympics, this is perhaps even truer. Because for so many Olympic sports—think swimming, archery, gymnastics—the difference between a gold and a silver medal is a fraction of a second, a half a millimeter, one split-second decision to shift left rather than right.
Sleep, besides allowing bodies to recover from those intense training sessions, is essential for reaction time, precision and and clear-thinking. So much so that before the Winter Olympics in Torino in in 2006, the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, CO, brought in a sleep specialist to advise on athletes’ sleep conditions. Dr. Mark Rosekind evaluated the facility and made simple but impactful changes, like blackout curtains, cooler temperatures and ambient noise. Speed skater Apolo Ohno was one of the first to receive the bedroom makeover, and reported noticeable improvement in performance after just a few nights.
So it’s no surprise that sleep plays a big role in the pre-competition habits of many Olympic athletes. On the occasion of the 31st Olympic games, we’ve rounded up insights about sleep from the mouths of Olympic athletes from all eras:
Kerron Clement, Track and Field Athlete
The Trinidadian-born Team USA track and field star definitely needs his shuteye for his physically demanding sports of sprints and hurdles. And he has the good sleep hygiene and enthusiasm for rest to prove it. As he tweeted:
“Bedtime! Imma sleep like a baby tonight. Shutting all electronics down! Don’t want my phone buzz’n all night.”
Usain Bolt, Track and Field Athlete
Known around the world as a record setter—and breaker—Bolt is as fast as, well, a lightning bolt. He’s on the record as saying that sleep is the most important part of his daily training regimen:
“Sleep is extremely important to me—I need to rest and recover in order for the training I do to be absorbed by my body.”
Serena Williams, Tennis Player
This powerhouse tennis player has struggled with insomnia and knows firsthand how it can hurt her performance, so she’s made quality ZZZs a priority. As she told the Huffington Post:
“When I don’t get enough sleep, I just can’t get a good workout. It’s low-quality and I don’t have enough rejuvenation in my cells to use the muscles that I need to use.”
Chris Hoy, Track Cyclist
As the most decorated Olympic cyclist of all time, this British athlete knows what he’s talking about when it comes to sleep. Appreciating the impact sleep could have on his performance, he had a specially designed mattress delivered to each hotel he stayed at during the Tour de France. Hoy has emphasized the importance of enough sleep, especially during the intensity of competition:
“[I need] at least eight hours to be fully fresh in the morning. For major events like the Olympics you have to almost train yourself to switch it off. As a younger guy I’d struggle with the expectation and the pressure at major championships, but once you’ve done it a few times you learn to cope with it.”
Shannon Miller, Gymnast
In gymnastics, the precise placement of a foot or angle at which you land is critical when it comes to the judges’ ratings. So it’s no surprise that Miller knows the value of sleep, and has made it a priority in her household. She told First Coast Magazine that the members of her household get an average of nine hours of sleep each night, adding:
“Sleep is a huge priority. I learned as an athlete, your body needs that time to mend and repair. Sleep is just as important as strength training.”
Ryan Hall, Marathoner
The retired endurance runner from Team USA knew the wear and tear those long distances could have on his body, and built in time to allow for it to recover:
“Sleep is huge in my sport. Recovery is the limiting factor, not my ability to run hard. I typically sleep about eight to nine hours a night but then I make sure to schedule 90 minute ‘business meetings’–aka naps–into my day for an afternoon rest.”
Natalie Coughlin, Swimmer
As a 12-time Olympic medalist, Natalie has an appreciation not only for the way sleep can impact her performance, but also for how the body’s sleep needs change with age:
“As I’ve gotten older, sleep has become more essential. I’ve started using earplugs, and I kick the dogs out of the bed. They were hurting the quality of sleep I got. It was hard on all of us.”
Muhammad Ali, Boxer
Sometimes, it’s not about how sleep can improve athletic performance and help you unlock athletic potential. Sometimes it’s just about how truly great sleep feels. “The Greatest” himself summed this up simply and eloquently in the answer to what he was looking forward to in retirement:
“Just sleep is all I want to do.”
Now that we can stand behind. Sweet dreams and good luck to all the amazing athletes competing in the 2016 Olympic Games!