Lessons in sporting pillow talk and sleeping your way to the top – The Irish Times
It was well past midnight, the Eagles and Chiefs still fighting for the lead going into the fourth quarter, the last concoction of cannoli and espresso martini had gone down the hatch. It was probably time for bed.
Just no waste in this house. The central heating was heating up again from the halftime show, the rooms were sizzling, and there was still 90 percent dark chocolate left, which also made it to the bed. There, careful not to further disturb the night’s peace, the fourth quarter played out under my pillow and on my phone, headphones on, while I occasionally checked what Twitter was saying.
Oh contemporary sleep evangelists, forgive me.
Even if it’s just that crazy one-time subversion like last Sunday’s Super Bowl, this is the very regime that rips apart every single rule in the book of a good night’s sleep. You don’t have to understand everything about melatonin levels or circadian rhythms or REM to know all of this — the incandescent light, those above room temperature, the alcohol and sugar and caffeine — are nod-land’s best enemies.
“A disheveled mind makes a restless pillow,” Charlotte Brontë once wrote, and she knew what she was talking about. Any lack of respect for our nightly rest can have repercussions on our health and society, some more dangerous than you might think, and also turn out in the sports arena. If you take care of your five a day, you should also take care of your eight a night – so hours in bed and preferably asleep.
What do Patrick Mahomes, LeBron James, Rory McIlroy, Michael Phelps, Virgil van Dijk, Conor Murray and Fintan McCarthy have in common?
They are among our leading contemporary sleep evangelists today, who may not have slept their way to the top of their game but certainly claim it keeps them there. They’re also either invested in Whoop, or brand ambassadors for Whoop, the sleep and fitness tracker that wears around the wrist or biceps, with no face and little interest in the day.
Whoop is more about the night, about rest and recovery, than your personal sleep coach telling you how much sleep you’ve gotten and how much sleep your body needs via the supporting app. It’s not quite as fancy as the Oura Ring or busy as the Fitbit; it makes the once exclusive sleep coach available to all.
McCarthy sang Whoop’s praises after winning another European rowing title with Paul O’Donovan last August and arriving in Munich perfectly rested and refreshed after a whopping nine hours and ten minutes of sleep the night before. After Sunday’s Super Bowl, Whoop said Mahomes was so prepared for his performance that he hit a maximum daily workload of 20.7, which is equivalent to a marathon (however vague that sounds).
Assuming you want to know, my sample device kindly provided by Whoop a few weeks ago is still untouched on the wine table. There is no night owl mode.
While more and more top athletes are recognizing the importance and value of a good night’s sleep, others have been preaching and prescribing it for years. None other than Matthew Walker, the British neuroscientist and now Director of Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
His international bestseller Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, published in 2017 after four and a half years of research, is an eye-opener on the subject. Not only does Walker believe that getting a good night’s sleep can make us smarter, more attractive, slimmer, happier, and healthier, he also believes it can help prevent cancer and heart disease, and possibly even dementia.
[ Conor Meyler: Meditation, cold baths, stretching, and taping my mouth ]
As the sleep advisor to the NFL, NBA and Premiership football teams, he also claims that two-thirds of adults in all developed nations don’t get the recommended eight hours of sleep. Go below seven hours, he says, and the immune system begins to weaken, which in turn is a cause of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart failure. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he quotes the old maxim, and you may do it sooner than if you slept well while alive.
Humans, he adds, are the only species that consciously deprive themselves of sleep, although “it is difficult to imagine any other state, whether natural or medically manipulated, that would allow for a more damaging recovery of physical and mental health at any level of analysis.” . In contrast, adequate sleep reforms the body’s metabolic state and is “closely linked to the fitness of our cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure while keeping our hearts in good shape.”
Aristotle called sleep “a deprivation of waking,” while “men who sleep badly,” according to Bertrand Russell, “always pride themselves on it.” Insomnia, Walker writes, is an entirely different area of disrupted sleep patterns, a clinical disorder often associated with an overactive sympathetic nervous system, with triggers being stress, worry, and anxiety.
In contrast, some top athletes won’t settle for just eight a night: the early afternoon nap, another preferred rest period among distance runners, has long been hailed as a recovery tool that provides an extra dose of human growth hormone otherwise only obtained illegally would have been.
Oscar Wilde always said that the scariest sentence in the English language was “I had a very interesting dream last night”. Vladimir Nabokov also had little time for this brotherhood of sleep, although he believed in dreams and occasionally used them as inspiration, as did Paul McCartney, who came up with the idea for Let It Be after having a dream about his mother during tense sessions for the White Album.
This is perhaps the best way to sleep your way to the top, in sports or elsewhere. Walker makes a strong case for this period of REM sleep—marked by rapid eye movement, when most dreaming occurs—and not just for its vital role in our mental health.
“During the REM phase, the flow of the anxiety-inducing brain chemical, norepinephrine, is shut off, allowing us to contemplate disturbing real-world events in a neurochemically calm environment… a virtual reality space where the brain fuses past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.”
In other words, dreaming can help us master a new skill, practice a task that can prove just as helpful as when we’re awake. Have you ever dreamed of hitting the Super Bowl touchdown? Is the dream of running a marathon still alive?
Dream it again, only this time for real, just make sure you get to bed on time for it.