By Dr. Ian C. Dunican, SH//FT Sleep Consultant
It is well known that sleep is an important process for recovery and subsequent performance in athletes and non-athletes alike. In recent years, podcasts, news and scientific articles have communicated the intrinsic details of sleep in different athletic populations and the importance of sleep to enable performance.
So why is it that many people neglect sleep or just don’t get enough?
Recent statistics from the Sleep Health Foundation in Australia in conjunction with Deloitte access economics report that 1 in 3 people do not get enough sleep .
We should be aiming to achieve 7–9 hrs per night.
One of the main factors contributing to this lack of sleep is that 1 in 5 people have a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders or sleep problems will affect the quantity and quality of sleep, thereby reducing the efficiency of our sleeping time. There are currently over 80 sleep disorders recognized by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine  resulting in $18bn of lost productivity per year or $2,500 per person.
Another factor is the societal and cultural approach to exercise and fitness, particularly with high achievers and athletes.
Too many people are advocating early morning starts, just like Rocky, before 5:00 am in order to get workouts done or even to catch up on email. So, whilst many of us need to go to work or are trying to carve out time before children awake, we need to ensure that we are bringing balance to our training.
Such early morning starts will truncate your sleep duration.
If you are exercising at this time, then to achieve 7-9 hrs per night, you will need to be in bed at a minimum by 8:30pm. This will allow for 10–20 minutes to fall asleep, followed by 8-hrs in bed for sleep that will most likely result in around 90% of sleep efficiency or approx. 7-8-hrs as we all wake throughout the night (WASO: Wake after sleep onset) which results in a reduction in total sleep duration.
In my work with a top-level physiologist who specializes in recovery with elite and Olympic athletes, they always advocate that sleep for recovery is the number one modality to prioritize for subsequent performance.
Therefore, these early morning training sessions (before 5:00am) truncate your opportunity for sleep duration and will also reduce the time spent in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is important for cognitive performance and decision-making.
If you are an amateur athlete that works and has a family, then dividing your training sessions may be appropriate for you. Maybe consider a lunchtime high intensity session to augment your training or extending your evening training session. “Rise and Grind” may be replaced by “Sleep in, and Win”.
Some people get by on 4-5 hrs sleep a night, can’t I just train myself to do this?
The short answer is no, the vast majority of the population require 7–9 hrs per night.
In a recent interview Prof. Matthew Walker on the Joe Rogan Experience said, “When you look at the number of people that sleep less than 5 hrs per night, there is a small fraction of <1% of the population, that has a certain gene that allows them to survive on 5 hrs of sleep”.
So, whilst some people may be only getting 5-hrs and they might be functioning ok from day to day, they are most likely not achieving their optimal performance.
But what about people like Winston Churchill, Einstein etc., they didn’t sleep much?
Yes, they slept unorthodox hours and even slept a low number of hours overnight (4-6 hrs). However, they did nap at least once a day and sometimes twice. In my work with business leaders, coaches, athletes and the general population (more than 4,000 people), I have not observed anyone who functions or competes at the highest levels on less than 6-hrs per night. Those who have told me that they only need 6-hrs a night tend to have short naps during the day or in some cases experience micro-sleeps at their desks or when sitting down that they are unaware of.
What is of interest is when “short sleepers” are provided with an uninterrupted period of time in bed to maximize sleep, they tend to achieve 8-hrs of sleep.
If you are an athlete, non-athlete, business leader or an individual looking to optimize your day, then the cheapest, most effective solution may lie within your sleep…pun intended.
1. Robert Adams SA, Anne Taylor, Doug McEvoy, and Nick Antic. Report to the Sleep Health Foundation 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults. Sleep Health Foundation: The University of Adelaide:The Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health2016.
2. Berry RB BR, Gamaldo CE, Harding SM, Lloyd RM, Marcus CL and Vaughn BV. Academy of Sleep Medicine. The AASM Manual for the Scoring of Sleep and Associated Events: Rules, Terminology and Technical Specifications V2.2. Darien, Illinois: American Academy of Sleep Medicine; 2015.
Dr. Ian Dunican has over 20 years international professional experience in health, safety and performance/productivity improvement and commenced his occupational life in the Military. He has a PhD from the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he worked with elite sporting organizations and their athletes to optimize sleep, recovery and performance. Ian has worked with elite athletes at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), West Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS), professional teams in Super Rugby, Australian Rules Football, Basketball and with athletes involved in Ultra-Running, Swimming and Combat Sports like Boxing, & MMA. Read more about Ian, here.