Sleep like an Olympian

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Twenty-twelve was a bad year for American competitive cycling. It’s the year that Lance Armstrong received his lifetime ban and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. And in the midst of the controversy, his former teammates withdrew from the summer Olympics, placing the hopes for an Olympic cycling medal on the women.

And the women delivered: Kristin Armstrong secured the gold in the individual time trial, Georgia Gold had a career-best ride en route to a bronze medal in cross-country mountain biking and Sarah Hammer earned a silver medal in the women’s omnium.

But perhaps the most inspiring story came from the four underdog track cyclists, who on August 4, 2012, took home the silver Olympic medal in the women’s team pursuit – the first U.S. women’s track cycling medal in over 20 years.

But leading up to the 2012 Olympics, doping scandals put cycling in a bad light and funding, especially for women’s track cycling, was grossly lacking.

“On paper, there is no way we would have won a medal,” said team pursuit member Jennie Reed. “We had such limited resources, no mechanic, no soigneur and one [employed] coach among the four of us. We were writing our own training and workout programs.”

Teams from other countries meanwhile were pouring tens of thousands of dollars into technology and equipment. The US pursuit team needed every bit of support and performance gain they could get, and so they turned to those who believed in them the most: their friends and family.

Husbands quit their jobs and moved to Mallorca to fill in the roles of soigneurs, mechanics and cheering squad to help them with the day-to-day training. But it was a friend’s “Data not Drugs” experiment that may have given the team their final, medal-winning edge.

Sky Christopherson, a former track cyclist and friend of the team, had recently founded Optimized Athlete, a digital health company that specializes in tracking health and performance through glucose and sleep monitors as well as genetic reporting to indicate nutritional needs and muscular capacity.

“When I arrived in Spain to set the pursuit team up with new digital health technology, I found that the team had significant shortages in staff and budget.  We had to get resourceful,” recalled Christopherson.

And so he went work, focusing in particular on the athletes’ sleep.

Starting with the “basics”, Christopherson tracked the athletes’ sleep and wake times, and focused on minimizing sleep interruptions and sleep latency, which is the length of time that it takes to transition from full wakefulness to sleep.

“Then, through data analysis, we began to fine tune each individual athlete’s sleep,” explained Christopherson. “For example, cooling the core temperatures for a better deep sleep, which resulted in better performance the following day.”

To do that, athletes slept on a water circulated mattress pads to adjust the core temperature to each individual. For some that was 17 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), for others 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).

“You must bring intensity to every training or you may as well go home. We focused on improving everything. In elite sport, no stone can be left unturned. Every little bit helps and sleep was a big one,” said Reed.

Further experiments included tracking and controlling the exposure to daylight every day, eating something light before bed to keep glucose levels normal and data-driven on-the-bike training.

“Sleep, eating, recovery – it was all part of training,” Reed said, adding that the team even had friendly sleep competitions with each other, trying to “outperform” the others.

“I learned a lot from working with Sky. And Sarah [Hammer] continues to use these techniques,” said Reed.

Praising the rise of wearable technology, Reed said that sleep tracking is now available for the everyday athlete.

And while everyday athletes juggle work, family and training, tracking and improving sleep is something anyone can benefit from, said Reed.

“You need to train hard, recover harder,” said Reed.

“Quality training is essential, sometimes less is more,” added Christopherson. “Sports science focuses so much on splitting hairs with power numbers and drag coefficients, which, after a certain point, has diminishing returns.”

“If you look at the most significant performance factors, there are the other 20 hours of the day, namely sleep, diet, and well being,” Christopherson continued. “We are just starting to scratch the surface in quantifying and understanding these larger factors. Once we do, will be able to reduce an athlete’s biggest obstacles- injury and illness. By understanding the biggest systems in the body and what strengthens these systems by using data, not doping, we can generate sustainable increases in performance.”

Reed retired following the Olympics, and she has collaborated with fellow Olympian Dotsie Bausch on a coaching business set to launch in late summer 2015. Dubbed, Reed’s coaching business intends to introduce a new way of training to the masses through a “smart” predictor model of individualized coaching. Sleep, predictably, factors into her coaching model.

Jennie Reed’s sleeping tips for the everyday athlete:

Track your sleep: There are many affordable sleep-tracking devices out on the market now. Choose one that fits your budget and start tracking your sleep. Establish a baseline for approximately two weeks.  After you establish that baseline, your goal should be to try to make small improvements, just as you do in your training for sport.

Optimize your bedroom: Your environment can help or harm your sleep. Make sure it’s dark, cool (high teens (Celsius) // low to mid 60s (Fahrenheit)) and quiet. If you’re waking up during the night throwing the covers off, you need to lower the temperature in your room with either an air-conditioner or fan.

Put down your phone and other electronic devices: Avoid bright screens before going to bed.

Avoid alcohol: If you are going to have a glass of wine or beer, plan to drink it at least five hours before you go to bed.

Get enough sleep: Athletes should get between seven and nine hours of sleep. More if your body calls for it.

Consistent sleep: Try to go to bed and wake at the same times.

Sun exposure in the morning: Instead of putting on your sunglasses on your way to work or on the bike, go without for the first hour of your day or sip your coffee and answer emails in front of a bright artificial light. This exposure to sunlight will help you fall asleep easier and faster at night.

The incredible feat and story of Reed and the rest of 2012 women’s team pursuit squad as well as the Data Not Drugs experiment has been captured beautifully in Sky Christopherson’s latest documentary, Personal Gold, which will make the film festival rounds soon.

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