Sleep: The Road to Recovery—an interview with Olympian Patrick Chan

February 8, 2019 All posts Jared Sebastian

Who better to give us the inside scoop on the role of sleep in the body's recovery process than three-time Olympic figure skater Patrick Chan? In part one of this in-depth interview with Reverie's CMO Lisa Tan, Patrick tells us all about how fundamental sleep is to an athlete's performance both on and off the ice, along with the tips he's used to sleep better throughout his career.


Lisa Tan: Patrick Chan is here with me today. I’m Lisa Tan, the Chief Marketing Officer of Reverie, and I’m really excited to have the chance to speak with Patrick. He is one of the most decorated male figure skaters in Canadian history. He’s a three-time Olympian with an individual silver from the 2014 Olympics, and a team gold from the 2018 Olympics. He’s also a three-time world figure skating champion, and a 10-time Canadian national champion. All in all, he’s a tremendous skater. Today, we’re going to talk about the role of recovery and sleep in your career, Patrick.

Patrick: Awesome, looking forward to it.

L: You have a lot of medals and other laurels, but the other interesting thing about your career is its longevity. What physical, mental, recovery, or nutritional practices have allowed you to stay competitive at the highest levels for well over a decade?

P: I remember in my career in 2009—prior to competing in Vancouver in 2010—I tore a muscle in my left calf and had to sit out most of the season because of it.

A big part of the reason that injury surfaced was due to a lack of recovery. I was training the wrong way off the ice. Some areas were strong from my regular skating and I wasn’t really strengthening those weaker areas. So that, combined with a lack of recovery, was a big part of the injury.

With the help of a team of physiologists and off-ice trainers we revamped the way I train. It was then that I really began to put emphasis on the proper ways of recovering, including getting good sleep.

L: Can you talk a little bit more about your recovery methods?

P: I got into a few methods of recovery. One of them was actually going in the pool. It’s really good for your joints, your muscle fibers, and your muscle tissues. There was also the cryo chamber. Cryo was a big part of my recovery — I did cold baths and hot baths.

You can really do all of the recovery methods you want but it ultimately comes down to sleep. Sleep, meaning getting enough hours as well as the right type of sleep, such as REM sleep —sleep is what really made a big difference. I even took naps during the day to promote good hormone and cortisol levels. We studied all this during that time to try and make myself not only a better athlete, but a healthier person.

L: How much did your sleep change in the before and after stage, in terms of hours?

P: The sleep I was getting before was maybe seven hours, sometimes eight. I had to bump it up to the recommended amount of sleep needed for prime recovery at that competitive level: eight to nine hours.

So, I started paying attention to not only how many hours I was sleeping but also eating the right foods and using my phone less before bed, which is such a big part of winding down. Back then this wasn’t even talked about, but now we’re finding a lot of research showing the impact blue light has on getting quality sleep at the end of the day.

L: So true. 2009 is close to 10 years ago, and you’re right, back then there was so much less discussion about sleep than there is today. Even today we have so much to learn.

P: Absolutely. I don’t think anyone wants to voluntarily have bad sleep but it has to do with awareness. Bringing awareness to the general public, it takes time. Since I was competing at a high level of sport I was introduced to people who were very forward-thinking in the industries of health, recovery, and body conditioning. Their knowledge was so helpful. They helped make me aware of those things.

We kind of forget about the importance of sleep when we get carried away with our day-to-day to-do list. It’s easy to brush sleep aside and keep going. But you can't ask for quality execution of certain tasks in your day if your mind isn’t rested and isn’t sharp. When you’re tired you can feel it: you’re groggy, you’re unmotivated, you’re cranky— there are several signs that your sleep needs more attention.

L: With your great grounding in recovery, over the past 10 years, were there any points where you exceeded your limits, either your physical limits or stress limits? What can you do to check and adjust when there’s so much on your to-do list, or there’s so much amping you up? How do you personally check and adjust?

P: I actually notice more than ever, since life after competitive sports, that I’m very much prone to getting overwhelmed when it comes to deciding what to do next. When you’re an athlete it’s easy — you’re busy, but you’re busy doing one thing. Now I’m thinking “What’s the next step in my career, where do I want to go next, what do I want to learn?” Making those decisions requires a lot of versatility and the ability to put on a lot of different hats.

It’s important to keep yourself challenged, and to challenge yourself everyday, but it also requires you finding a balance. “How far can I push myself?” is an important question to ask yourself.

Now I go from skating-related events, to speaking engagements, or studying to get my real estate license and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. I just take a second and think, “What is the plan for today? What am I doing today? What is important at this exact moment?” to help myself narrow down the priorities for that day or week. Time management is a big part of that too, ensuring I have the time to figure out what’s number one on the list.

L: How do you manage your sleep while on the road?

P: With how much I travel, it’s a challenge. When travelling to Europe or Asia you deal with jet lag a lot. How to get over jet lag is the big mystery of travel. A few of these things have helped me:

Sometimes I wear compression pants or compression socks for my muscle recovery because of how heavy my legs can feel after travel—it’s a way to overcome that as soon as possible once I’ve landed at my destination.

Another easy tip that’s often overlooked is hydration. Water plays a huge role in how much jet lag can affect you. I remember the times I’ve made an effort to drink water before and after the flight and how far that went with my recovery.

Also, when you arrive, try not to sleep if it’s not time to sleep there. As much as your body wants to, don’t take that nap. It can really upset your body clock.

And finally, don’t boggle your mind too much over it. If you keep telling yourself “I’m gonna be jet lagged, I’m gonna be jet lagged, I’m gonna feel really bad, I’m gonna feel exhausted tomorrow” then you will. It’s all about positive reinforcement. As an athlete you tend to cling onto things and you can drive yourself mad with your self-dialogue. You need to instead focus on having a positive self-dialogue, one where you’re saying “I’m gonna drink water, I’m gonna walk around outside, not stay inside the hotel.” It’s really about keeping your mind busy in a positive way.

L: Let’s talk about sleep and performance. Is there anything you do sleep-wise pre-performance? Is there anything you do in the days or weeks leading up to a big event, and if so, what does that look like?

P: As an athlete in figure skating, and a lot of other athletes would probably agree, you don’t necessarily get a lot of great sleep leading up to a big event like the Olympics. I can remember every night prior to my big events at the Olympics sleeping was a daunting task. Your mind is racing, you’re getting ready for battle in a way and your body knows it. It’s so difficult to calm the body and tell it to rest in order to properly prepare itself for the next day.

Reading and meditation are two solutions to that problem. Noise machines are great too, they really help.

It’s really a test of the mind. You're laying there, left with your thoughts, and your thoughts pull you away from shutting your mind down. There’s a reason people count sheep before bed. It’s a way to narrow your mind down to one thing and not multiple things.

L: What does sleep look like for you on a typical night during your regular training regimen, or maybe a non-competitive tour?

P: Typically, we end around ten or eleven pm. We play these really high-intensity figure skating events and your nervous system is heightened, you’re just on a high of finishing the big event. It’s really difficult to calm yourself down, not just physically but mentally too.

Typically, it's hard to get to bed, which is why many people turn to sleeping pills or sleeping aids — but then you don't really get that high-quality REM sleep which your body needs in order to properly recover. You could be sleeping an eight- or nine-hour night but your body could feel just as tired as the day before because you didn't get the right sleep.

I often try to watch something really slow on Netflix. The blue light isn't good, but I had these glasses where the lens blocked out blue light. These glasses let me watch Netflix to get my mind off of the next competition or show. Reading is, I think, the best method. I’m not a big reader but every time I’ve read before bed it usually does help to calm me down.

L: So you’re on the road a lot, but I know you have a Reverie sleep system at home. How do you use it when you’re at home and able to use it?

P: I’m gonna be honest, I love that bed a lot. The functions on the bed are fun. Whether it’s doing last-minute work on the computer, watching Netflix, or reading a book; instead of stacking pillows behind me against the headboard for better posture the bed actually does it for me. I’ve really, really enjoyed it. My girlfriend also really loves that part of it.

The 3D massage part of it is really nice. My favorite is the Zero G function. My girlfriend snores too— [laughs] she gave me the okay to say that! She has a broken nose from skating a decade ago and the bed’s anti-snore function really helps with her.

I remember when I first went into Reverie to try the Zero G function I almost fell asleep immediately. I don’t know if this is true, but I always pitch to my friends that it mimics being a baby in your mother’s womb, it’s supposed to cradle you.

L: You have a lot of things going on right now—you have an upcoming tour, and you’re studying to get your real estate license. I read that you’re also working on creating a new skating center in Vancouver. You’re at this transition point where you’re still managing recovery when it comes to professional skating and physical training, and now you’re probably working on recovery from mental and emotional work as well. With so much going on in your life, and with so much experience, what’s the one thing you’d recommend for people reading or listening to think about when it comes to their recovery?

P: I always say: start with the head, with your mind. My girlfriend’s father always says “Don't go to bed angry” and I think it’s a good point which can of course be broadened. Whatever happens in your day, whatever good things or bad things happen, it's important to come home and start winding down. That's when you should be putting everything that happened that day away, filing it away, closing that chapter, and heading to bed.

Nowadays it’s really hard to shut off — we are extremely connected. That can be a good thing, but it also makes things challenging because it makes getting to sleep that much harder. We think we can lay down, flip a switch, and go to sleep, but that's not how it works. Like anything that’s good, sleep has to be nurtured and given attention.

I think number one: it’s important to decompress mentally. Go through a routine — read a book, do some meditation, put some candles or incense on around the room, use a noise machine. There’s so many things you can do to decompress you mind and body. I think doing those things is a great first step.