July 2021

Research During Pandemic Highlights Athletes’ Need for Sleep

By Antonio Robustelli, MSc, CSCS

Salerno, Italy: The COVID-19 pandemic has opened a Pandora’s box in the world of professional sport: But that’s not all bad. It has prompted a further and definitive qualitative leap in the application of sports science and medicine principles to a more inclusive vision of the human machine. That vision encompasses a multitude of factors contributing to the maximization of an athlete’s performance.

During several months characterized by lockdowns and general restrictions all over the world, there was a total upheaval in behavior, lifestyles, sleep hygiene, social gatherings, and our relationship with the environment. Despite these changes, athletes always had the opportunity to train. And they did train. But perhaps not in optimal ways.

Understood But Not Applied

Although their role has been investigated and highlighted in the scientific literature, the importance of proper recovery strategies together with a regular sleep hygiene protocol and light exposure remain overlooked in professional sport. These are things players need to do to stay healthy and fit, and taking care of what the athletes/players need to do even outside the training ground should be one of the fundamental pillars of the physical preparation process.

It is in this unique and precarious moment in history – where general restrictions, isolation, and governmental lockdown strategies have changed the habits and lifestyles of the whole world population – that the role of sleep and circadian rhythms related to recovery and performance in sport has become an ever-more relevant issue in the sports science and coaching community.

The role and effects of sleep in the overall health and wellbeing of athletes have been widely studied over the past years, with several papers showing the positive impact of a regular sleep hygiene protocol on various aspects related to quality of life, athletic performance, cognitive and mental health, and regulation of emotion.1 Over-exposure to artificial ambient illumination during evening and night hours has been shown to disrupt circadian rhythms and sleep patterns through a mechanism of misalignment of the endogenuous biological processes and the external light-dark cycles.2 And, because they can negatively affect the quality of sleep and thus the level of an athlete’s performance, several other factors need to be taken into account. These factors include age, fitness status, gender, diet, travel, and anxiety.3

There have been a few papers in the last 12 months that have focused attention on the effects of lockdowns and restrictions on professional athletes. Mon-Lopez et al4 investigated the effects of lockdown restrictions on 175 professional and non-professional Spanish football players through an online survey with Profile of Mood States (POMS) and Wong Law Emotional Intelligence Scale Short form (WLEIS-S) questionnaires, showing that changes in habits due to isolation and restrictions have produced modifications in sleep patterns (sleep quality and sleep time) and mood states.

A more recent study by Facer-Childs et al5 investigated the impact of lockdowns on sleep and mental health in athletes by administering an online survey to 565 elite and sub-elite athletes during the period from May 1 through June 1, 2020. The results of the study showed a decrease in training frequency, later mid-sleep time, and a greater sleep latency.

This is probably the most important lesson that the world of professional sports can learn from the experience of more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic: Use a negative historical period to establish a new relationship toward the health and wellbeing of the athletes, putting the athletes themselves and their overall lifestyles at the center of the training process and system – with a nod toward sleep hygiene protocols. This is the biggest challenge sports performance science needs to fix in the world post-pandemic.

Antonio Robustelli, MSc, CSCS, is a professional sports performance consultant and elite coach from Italy. He is also a member of the LER Editorial Advisory Board and can be reached at  Antonio.robustelli@omni-athlete.com.

  1. Watson AM. Sleep and athletic performance. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2017;16(6):413-418.
  2. Blume C, Garbazza C, Spitschan M. Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie (Berl). 2019;23(3):147-156.
  3. Savis JC. Sleep and athletic performance: overview and implications for sport psychology. Sport Psychologist. 1994;8(2):111-125.
  4. Mon-Lopez D, Garcia-Aliaga A, Bartolome AB, Solana DM. How has Covid-19 modified training and mood in professional and non-professional football players? Physiol Behav. 2020;227:113148.
  5. Facer-Childs ER, Hoffman D, Tran JN, Drummond SPA, Rajaratnam SMW. Sleep and mental health in athletes during COVID-19 lockdown. Sleep. 2021;44(5):1-9.

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