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The Importance of Sleep, Monitoring Devices, and Changing Your Routine, with Dr. Shona Halson

Learn how to monitor and change your sleep to get the most out of every night with Dr. Shona Halson, sleep researcher and former director of the Australian Olympic Committee Recovery Centre.

Ah, sleep. I love it. Do you love it? If only I could get more of it, and get better at it, and wake up each day well rested. Some days it works, many times it doesn’t. 

Sleep can be hard, but does it have to be? Sleep is critical, so are you getting enough? And are you getting the right kind? We all know we need sleep, but knowledge is not enough. The focus of this episode is not to convince you why sleep is important, but how to monitor and change your sleep, to get the most out of every night.  

In particular, for athletes who stress their bodies, sleep is critical. How do we make sure we get what we need, and avoid some of the disruptions and issues that can lead to sleep impairments? We’ll dive in.  

When it comes to monitoring sleep, there are a host of new gadgets that tell us both about our sleep volume, and the stages we’ve hit. Do they work? We’ll discuss the latest findings on sleep monitoring—what works, what doesn’t, and what to do with that data. 

Finally, we discuss how to take all that information and change our behavior—easier said than done. But hopefully today’s guest will help us all sleep more soundly tonight.  

Dr. Shona Halson is an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Health Sciences at Australian Catholic University. Prior to her current research on sleep, she was a senior physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport for 15 years. She has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and has over 100 peer-reviewed publications in the areas of sleep, recovery, fatigue, and travel. Dr. Halson has served as the director of the Australian Olympic Committee Recovery Centre for three Olympic Games. She has helped countless athletes better understand the importance of sleep, and we’re excited to bring her knowledge to you today. 

In this episode, we’ll also hear from Dr. James Hull, a respiratory physician, who touches upon the importance of sleep when it comes to fighting infection; and Cameron Cogburn and Erica Clevenger both detail their sleep hygiene and routines to improve sleep quality.   

Time to put on your PJs. Let’s make you fast! 

  • Miller DJ, Lastella M, Scanlan AT, Bellenger C, Halson SL, Roach GD, et al. A validation study of the WHOOP strap against polysomnography to assess sleep. J Sport Sci 2020:1–6. 
  • Halson SL, Lastella M. Amazing Athletes With Ordinary Habits: Why Is Changing Behavior So Difficult? Int J Sport Physiol 2017;12:1273–4. 
  • Halson SL, Juliff LE. Chapter 2 Sleep, sport, and the brain. Prog Brain Res 2017;234:13–31. 
  • Driller MW, Mah CD, Halson SL. Development of the athlete sleep behavior questionnaire: A tool for identifying maladaptive sleep practices in elite athletes. Sleep Sci 2018;11:37–44. 
  • Halson SL, Jeukendrup AE. Does Overtraining Exist?: An Analysis of Overreaching and Overtraining Research. Sports Med 2004;34:967–81. 
  • Jones MJ, Dawson B, Gucciardi DF, Eastwood PR, Miller J, Halson SL, et al. Evening electronic device use and sleep patterns in athletes. J Sport Sci 2018;37:864–70. 
  • Sargent C, Lastella M, Halson S, Roach G. How much sleep does an elite athlete need? Sleep Med 2019;64:S335–6. 
  • Jones MJ, Dawson B, Eastwood PR, Halson SL, Miller J, Murray K, et al. Influence of Electronic Devices on Sleep and Cognitive Performance During Athlete Training Camps. J Strength Cond Res 2019;Publish Ahead of Print:NA; 
  • Saw AE, Halson SL, Mujika I. Monitoring Athletes during Training Camps: Observations and Translatable Strategies from Elite Road Cyclists and Swimmers. Sports 2018;6:63. 
  • Halson SL. Monitoring Training Load to Understand Fatigue in Athletes. Sports Med 2014;44:139–47. 
  • Night Games: Physiological, Neuroendocrine and Psychometric Mechanisms to Explain Poor Sleep n.d. 
  • Halson SL, Shaw G, Versey N, Miller DJ, Sargent C, Roach GD, et al. Optimisation and Validation of a Nutritional Intervention to Enhance Sleep Quality and Quantity. Nutrients 2020;12:2579. 
  • Kouw IW, Holwerda AM, Trommelen J, Kramer IF, Bastiaanse J, Halson SL, et al. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Overnight Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates in Healthy Older Men: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Nutrition 2017;147:2252–61. 
  • Halson SL. Sleep Monitoring in Athletes: Motivation, Methods, Miscalculations and Why it Matters. Sports Med 2019;49:1487–97. 
  • Halson SL. Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Med 2014;44:13–23. 
  • Romyn G, Robey E, Dimmock JA, Halson SL, Peeling P. Sleep, anxiety and electronic device use by athletes in the training and competition environments. Eur J Sport Sci 2015;16:301–8. 
  • Kölling S, Duffield R, Erlacher D, Venter R, Halson SL. Sleep-Related Issues for Recovery and Performance in Athletes. Int J Sport Physiol 2019;14:144–8. 
  • Halson SL. Stealing sleep: is sport or society to blame? Brit J Sport Med 2016;50:381. 
  • Lastella M, Roach GD, Halson SL, Sargent C. The effects of cold water immersion on the amount and quality of sleep obtained by elite cyclists during a simulated hill climbing tour. Sport Sci Heal 2019;15:223–8. 
  • Lastella M, Roach GD, Vincent GE, Scanlan AT, Halson SL, Sargent C. The Impact of Training Load on Sleep During a 14-Day Training Camp in Elite, Adolescent, Female Basketball Players. Int J Sport Physiol 2020;15:724–30. 

Episode Transcript

Chris Case  00:12

Hey there, welcome to Fast Talk your source for the science of cycling performance. I’m your host, Chris Case.


Chris Case  00:19

Ah, sleep. I love it. Do you love it? If only I could get more of it, and get better at it, and wake up each day well rested. Some days it works, many times it doesn’t.


Chris Case  00:31

Sleep can be hard, but does it have to be? Sleep is critical, so are you getting enough? And are you getting the right kind? We all know we need sleep, but knowledge is not enough. The focus of this episode is not to convince you why sleep is important, but how to monitor and change your sleep, to get the most out of every night.


Chris Case  00:52

In particular, for athletes who stress their bodies, sleep is critical. How do we make sure we get what we need, and avoid some of the disruptions and issues that can lead to sleep impairments? We’ll dive in.


Chris Case  01:05

When it comes to monitoring sleep, there are a host of new gadgets that tell us both about our sleep volume, and the stages we’ve hit. Do they work? We’ll discuss the latest findings on sleep monitoring—what works, what doesn’t, and what to do with that data.


Chris Case  01:22

Finally, we discuss how to take all that information and change our behavior—easier said than done. But hopefully today’s guest will help us all sleep more soundly tonight.


Chris Case  01:33

Dr. Shona Halson is an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Health Sciences at Australian Catholic University. Prior to her current research on sleep, she was a senior physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport for 15 years. She has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and has over 100 peer-reviewed publications in the areas of sleep, recovery, fatigue, and travel. Dr. Halson has served as the director of the Australian Olympic Committee Recovery Centre for three Olympic Games. She has helped countless athletes better understand the importance of sleep, and we’re excited to bring her knowledge to you today.


Chris Case  02:14

In this episode, we’ll also hear from Dr. James Hull, a respiratory physician, who touches upon the importance of sleep when it comes to fighting infection; and Cameron Cogburn and Erica Clevenger both detail their sleep hygiene and routines to improve sleep quality.


Chris Case  02:31

Time to put on your PJs. Let’s make you fast!


Chris Case  02:40

Well, today we’re sitting down to discuss the all important topic of sleep and we have a wonderful expert from Australia. Dr. Shona Halson. Welcome to Fast Talk.


Dr. Shona Halson  02:52

Thanks for thanks having me on.

The recovery benefits of sleep and why it’s important for athletes specifically

Chris Case  02:54

Absolutely. We all know, sleep is really important. I think some of us do better at taking that to heart. Other people may be ignored a little bit too much. Today, though, we want to talk a little bit more about how to monitor it, how to change your sleep patterns and behavior. But I think we have to start with the question of why sleep is important and briefly talk about that. So Dr. Halston, I want to turn it right over to you. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before. But could you give us the brief overview of sleep’s importance here?


Dr. Shona Halson  03:36

Yeah, and it is good, I think to touch on some of these because I think we’re, you know, the more we research and the more we understand, you know, it just increases our knowledge in terms of how important it is. And given that, you know, our body, all our body functions run off a body clock, sleep obviously becomes, you know, really important for a range of different factors. So, we know, it’s super important for the brain, for our cognitive function, for our reaction time. We know it’s really important now for mood, depression, anxiety, emotional regulation, we know it’s important for the immune system, I think everyone knows what it feels like to not, not sleep much and then get sick. And of course, for the athlete, it’s really important for things like muscle repair and recovery. And you know, there’s lots of hormones that are released during sleep, that become really important for the athletes ability to recover. And then I guess the last one, which is, you know, relevant for everyone, not just the athlete is, you know, metabolism. So we’re starting to really see this relationship between some of the hormones associated with feelings of, you know, satiety and hunger and as well as a gut microbiome. So you could pretty much go through the entire body, head to toe and sleeps important for pretty much everything that we do for our health and well being.


Chris Case  04:55

Makes it sound like we could do 15 episodes on sleep. Sleep and fill-in-the-blank: sleep and recovery, sleep and performance, sleep and metabolism, sleep and whatever.


Dr. Shona Halson  05:07

Yeah, I feel like sometimes I can, when I did that little introduction on, you know, what sleeps important for, I always say to people, I could bore you for hours on how important it is. But so that was as quick as I could possibly do it I think.


Trevor Connor  05:20

In some ways, we’re stating the obvious, but there are times where it is worth pointing out the obvious and reading your research, there were a couple themes that you brought up. And one of them is the fact that really one of the most important functions of sleep is restoration, at multiple levels. And likewise, you at one point wrote about recovery and all the different recovery modalities, but said, well, athletes are always looking for these new ways to improve recovery via compression clothing, via ice baths, whatever new modality is out, really none of them compared to the recovery benefits of sleep.


Dr. Shona Halson  06:05

Yeah, and, you know, the way that I think of it, the way that I try to explain to people and the athletes that I work with is, you know, I think of recovery as a pyramid. And, you know, you’ve got to get the base of your pyramid right first, before you add all the fancy things to the top. And, you know, things like your sleep, and, you know, nutrition and training, you know, that’s the foundation of your pyramid. But what I see a lot of athletes do and what a lot of people want to do is just take the quick, easy, simple fix, that will often isn’t really a fix, it’s just, you know, something that they think is is that they’re ticking the box or doing their recovery, when, and if you think about it, we’re supposed to spend a third of our lives asleep. And you know, that’s a significant period of time, in comparison to say, you know, I am an advocate for our spouse in the right setting in the right situation. But you know, you might be talking 15 minutes of the day, in comparison to sleep that should be, you know, for athletes, maybe around nine hours. So I think it’s one of the you know, we call them the big rocks, I think that’s one of the key aspects, it’s, for most people, it’s not that difficult to do. It’s just a matter of getting your behaviors, right. And I think that focusing on that, rather than focusing on the really small things that may have less of an impact when you don’t have your sleep nailed, and you’re not doing that properly. I think that doesn’t, it doesn’t make sense to me.


Trevor Connor  07:28

So you’re saying when I sit there at night with my Norma Tech’s on and my recovery mix and decide to skip sleep, that-


Chris Case  07:35

You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong.


Dr. Shona Halson  07:39

Yeah, there was that phase, and I’m sure it was worldwide, where people were waking up in the middle of night to ice their injuries. It got a bit of a trendy thing to do. And it just always amazed me, I was like, why would you interrupt the recovery strategy we have to ice injury. So, yeah, people do interesting things at times, but I, you know, for me, it’s about protecting sleep, I think it’s the best strategy we have. And we should do as many things as we can to make it as good as we can, knowing that it’s not gonna be perfect all the time. But you know, consistency and good habits is key.


Trevor Connor  08:17

Dr. James Hall, respiratory physician at Royal Brompton Hospital in London had some useful insight to add to this conversation about sleep, and how it’s integral to optimal performance.


Dr. James Hull  08:28

I mean, I think, you know, sleep is massively important. And as you know, I mean, it’s, you know, it’s crucial to so many different aspects of athletic health.  There’s certainly evidence that impaired sleep quality increases the risk of respiratory tract infection, as it does for any infection, really, but when you look at the factors which could make an athlete more vulnerable to respiratory, respiratory tract problems, infection is the key issue, as I said, in the previous podcast. And so high quality sleep of a significant- sufficient duration, and is important to increase immune function, and to protect against respiratory tract infection. The other key thing is that when you’re asleep, you can’t modulate your breathing pattern, and you can’t modulate the way you breathe. And so if you’ve got natural sign or nasal problems, and you’ve got blockage in your nose, then effectively you default into an oral predominant breathing pattern. And that has problems associated with it, including drying of the upper airway, waking up with sore throats, and issues with drying the lower airways and increasing propensity to for instance, asthma. So, you know, you don’t want to overlook the performance of your respiratory system over night. And by having those treat those conditions properly treating ensuring you’ve got adequate nasal flow.


Trevor Connor  09:53

So here’s the question I’ve really wanted to ask you. When we, right from the day we said, let’s set up this episode, they always talk about eight hours of sleep, eight hours of sleep, that’s what you need. What is the basis for that? Does everybody need eight hours of sleep? And I’m also going to point out, you haven’t said in one of your studies that we go through all the stages of sleep and about a 90 minute cycle. So wouldn’t that mean we’d need either seven and a half hours asleep? Or nine hours of sleep? What’s the basis behind eight?


Dr. Shona Halson  10:25

Yeah, I think it’s just one of those things that, you know, over the years, you know, when there’s been sleep deprivation studies, people often have seen effects when you start to take sleep lower than that eight hours, and it’s just, you know, the third of our lives asleep, it’s just, it’s just a figure that is sort of been around for quite a while. And I think there’s some, there are some problems, there’s some benefits to that, knowing that a lot of athletes don’t get eight hours, at least recommending that is a starting point. But I also think we’re all really different. And some people can get by with less sleep, and some people need need more than that. And the thing around, it’s interesting around the 90, the 90 minute cycles, and that’s something that, again, is a little bit of a myth. And we’ve, we’ve there’s very few studies that have actually looked at the gold standard of sleep monitoring, which is polysomnography, in athletes. And we did, we’ve done a little bit of work, if we haven’t published it yet, a little bit of work in that area. And some of the athletes go through very different cycles than 90 minutes, some of them are much, much shorter than that. So that’s a bit of once again, one of those kind of myths that’s kind of crept around when it comes to sleep. But I think, you know, giving athletes a little bit of a target is not altogether a bad thing. But we do need to individualize it a little bit and get the athletes to think about their own sleep need. So for example, you know, I’m sort of someone that copes, I don’t cope really well, with under seven hours of sleep, I sort of know for myself, or, you know, I get through the day alright, but I’m not, I’m not as good as I could be. And I think if you talk to people, and you get them to think about how they feel when they wake up and how they get through the day, you can kind of get them to work out their own sleep needs, if they start to sort of pay attention to their own sleep. So it is highly variable that we know there’s a genetic component to sleep. And so you know, just to give, you know, to say just a straight eight hours, isn’t probably doing it doing the athletes justice.


Chris Case  12:29

That said, Dr. Halson athletes certainly need more. Could you speak to why they need more? It seems like there might be an obvious answer, but could you go into some of the detail there?


Dr. Shona Halson  12:43

Yeah, we do believe that athletes need more, it’s one of those, that type of research, that’s really hard to do, to actually prove that, but we do believe they need more. And that’s really coming from the perspective when you think about what sleep is, it’s to restore the the mind and the body. And to get into prepare the individual for the next day, if you’ve got an athlete who’s done your six hours of training in a day, if they’ve been doing some mentally challenging things, like you know, you can think of, you know, NFL players or watching a lot of video during the day, you know, or you’re trying to teach an athlete some new skills, you’ve got a combination of some physical processes that need to be recovered from and some mental processes as well. So the idea that potentially particularly from a physical side, that athletes might need more sleep is coming from that perspective that they need more repair and regeneration than the average person who’s not doing as much physical exercise.


Trevor Connor  13:44

Now, what I found interesting in some of your reviews was you point out the fact that most of the research on sleep has been in people who have some sort of sleep dysfunction, and that there’s actually not a lot of research on both athlete needs and  their actual sleep behavior. But it seems a little bit that has been done a lot of as actually your research is that athletes tend to get a little less sleep and their sleep seems to be lower quality then non-athletes.


Dr. Shona Halson  14:19

Yeah, and that’s it’s so interesting to me, because it was definitely not what we expected initially. So if you’re to look at the research around exercise in the general population, exercise is great for sleep for most people. So for the general population, exercise really helps you get that good deep quality sleep, it gets you tired helps you sleep. But for athletes, it seems like there’s something else that might be interfering with sleep. And I think there’s a couple of things I think that some unique demands of being an athlete that can interfere with` sleep and it can be you know, everyone has stress in their lives. But you know, for athletes, it is You know, it’s not unique stresses around selection or, you know, performing in front of, you know, 100,000 people, whatever it might be. So there’s some sort of unique stresses there. There’s the some stresses potentially from a physical perspective. So you know, any contact sports athletes, you know, runners who have, you know, muscle damage or soreness, or if you’re in the gym, and you’ve got some soreness there, you know, there may be some issues from from being sore. And then also just, it’s potentially just, you know, when we look at so in Australia, for example, our swimmers get up really early, our triathletes get up really early, and rollers get up really early. And I understand to a certain point why that occurs. However, it’s just not great for protecting an athlete’s sleep, it’s really hard to get enough sleep when we wake them up so early. So I think there’s a combination of things that athletes do. And you know, we’re talking to younger generation now where you know, social media, gaming, caffeine, you know, that they’re all, you know, pretty, pretty prominent in younger athletes lives. But then there’s also things that we do that can mess up with this league in terms of schedules and travel and competition times. But yeah, I think there’s it’s a bit of a perfect storm with athletes for reasons why they potentially don’t sleep as much as the general population. And that’s actually kind of scary, because the general population doesn’t sleep well anyway. So I think it’s a whole lot of factors that go into causing the athletes not to sleep as well as we’d like them to.


Chris Case  16:33

It’s such a it’s such a big question, I think, but what biologically happens during sleep, that miss that facilitates this restoration that you can’t get at other parts of, or in other aspects of life?


Dr. Shona Halson  16:51

And it is a good question, I’ll try to answer it short and simple. But essentially, that as I was saying, you know, our body runs on our body clock, so whether there are things that we are designed to do when we’re awake, and there’s things that we are designed as humans to do when we’re asleep, physiological and cognitive processes that happen in both of those. And we just we’ve what we’ve done is we’ve just shifted it, where we’ve spent more time awake and less time asleep. So that’s where our problems lie is where we’re doing different things. Our kadian rhythm isn’t matching what we’re supposed to be doing.


Dr. Shona Halson  17:24

But in terms of what actually happens, you know, there’s, um, there’s brain processes. So the biggest, the sort of one of the most popular theories at the moment around why we sleep because everyone still disagrees. Of course, scientists do. But one of the biggest theories is that it’s a time sleep is a time where the brain is essentially cleared out of things that doesn’t need. So you build up of these chemicals in the brain. In particular, we build up adenosine, we build up some other other chemicals and other sort of waste products. That happened as a function of being awake and using your brain all day. And at night, it’s a time to clear those out and get the get the brain ready for the next day. And the simplest way to describe that is the brain fog we have when we’re really sleep deprived, it’s like our brain just doesn’t work as well. So there’s cognitive things that happen when we’re asleep, to repair the brain. And then there’s physiological things that happen, there’s, you know, obviously some hormone release that that occurs in terms of repair. And then there’s just a time of, you know, lower heart rates, you know, a blood pressure’s very different, our core temperature changes throughout the night. So it’s just a period of recovering from the day, we’re paid to do some repair processes getting us ready for the next day.


Trevor Connor  18:42

Which is why as you know, as a professor, the best way to prepare for an exam is to wait until two days beforehand and then pulled two all nighters and drink a lot of caffeine.


Dr. Shona Halson  18:53

I think it’s pretty common.


Trevor Connor  18:55

So you’re saying that’s not the best approach, if you want to actually remember anything?


Dr. Shona Halson  18:59

Yeah. And look, there’s now some pretty good science around that to say that, you know, the thing that we know most about when it comes to sleep deprivation is the effects it has on the brain. And part of that is from studies around fatigue. Like, you know, you don’t want tired pilots, you don’t want tired truck drivers, you don’t want to tired train drivers, right. So you generally don’t want any drivers that are tired. And so a lot of work that has gone on has been in that cognitive space to understand why reaction time is affected and how it’s affected and how long you have to be awake. So we’ve got some really good information on that. And now the next stage of research that’s happened over the last few years is exactly that. It’s around learning. And so it’s hard to teach people new things when they’re sleep deprived. And it’s also hard to if someone is sleep deprived, to get them to retain that information. So if you have someone if you’re if they’re sleeping well and you’re trying to teach them someone something new, that’s great, but if they’re not They can either have a nap after they’ve learned something. So you know, you can schedule your training sessions in a certain way, if they can have a nap after that, that can help reinforce what they’ve learned. But super important for memory, learning cognition, just the brain in general. And of course, add mood and your interest, depression, anxiety and all that into the mix. And yeah, the brain is the brain is where it’s at a lot in terms of in terms of sleep.

Does a bad night of sleep affect athletic performance?

Trevor Connor  20:28

So something that doesn’t seem to be black or white in the research, it seems like there, there’s research pointing in both directions, is does a bad night of sleep, affect performance? I know you cited several studies that shows that it does, I have read studies that show one poor night asleep, you can still pretty much you’re not going to be the happiest person, people might not want to talk to you. But you can still pretty much perform at your best.


Dr. Shona Halson  20:57

Yeah, and look, I think that’s a really good thing to bring up. Because, one, the research is conflicting. And I’ll explain the reason for that. And two, I think it’s important for people to know that generally speaking, one bad night is not the end of the world, the body’s pretty good at going into a deep, deep sleep the next night, so you know what it’s like you’ve had a terrible night, and the next night usually sleep pretty deep and pretty good. And so what we don’t want people to do, especially athletes is to get really overly stressed and anxious, because that’s not good for sleep. When if they’re particularly worried about about this about heading one bad night, we want them to know that you probably need a few bad nights to to affect your performance.


Dr. Shona Halson  21:43

But the reason the research is conflicting is because there’s essentially two types of protocols you can use to assess- reduce sleep. One is just 24 hours of pure sleep deprivation. And, of course, you see greater effects when you don’t have any sleep at all. However, in the real world, we don’t see that happening very often in athletes. So it’s an experimental model that probably doesn’t translate very well into the real world. What we see more and where some of the better kinds of research is, is because we see this more in athletes is sort of shortened sleep for several nights in a row. So for example, you usually get eight hours, but you’re stressed about something or something’s going on in your life, and you’re getting five hours, and they’re a bit broken. And you have that for three or four nights, then yes, we’ll start to potentially see some performance effects.


Dr. Shona Halson  22:35

But the important thing to know is the performance effects that we see are typically driven by increased perception of effort. So what I say to, to athletes is, if it’s the night before the Olympic final, and you have a terrible night’s sleep, it’s only one night. So you’re probably not going to have too many effects. And the problem is really related to things just feel harder, your perception of effort is greater. And I’m sure, obviously I have never lined up at an Olympic final, but you know, the adrenaline, the excitement and the hype, in most cases is going to overcome that perception of effort. So what we’re really worried about is longer decrease sleep. So if you’re someone who you know sleeps really well, but has the odd bed night, no problem. If you’re someone who is all over the place, and then starts to have a few really bad nights, you’re probably going to be in be in a bit of a bit of a slump. But yeah, the research differences is really around, you know, the way that they they have conducted the studies.


Chris Case  23:34

Yeah, from personal experience, I would say the nerves that you have the anxiety over the big race the next day, that can often lead at least from my personal experience to restless night of sleep the night before and it doesn’t affect performance. What happens usually to me is that the day after is when I feel really tired. Or like you say if it’s multiple nights in a row consecutive nights in a row, that’s when you start to worry even more because it will affect performance but one night, little disrupted sleep doesn’t really affect performance from my experience. So good to keep that in mind because you start that that competitions The next day, you get a little bit nervous you go to bed, you’re not sleeping that well you get even more anxious. It’s this, this this bad spiral. But if you keep in mind that it doesn’t really affect performance too much then you you know, maybe that’ll calm you down.


Trevor Connor  24:39

I had that conversation with athletes a lot. And I was glad to see you mentioned this in some of your writings. Because I always hate it when I hear other coaches or people recommend saying you know the night before a big competition make sure you get a lot of sleep because my experience is like wha Chris said most people the night before a big competition are nervous, and they have a hard time getting sleep, then they had read well, if you normally get seven hours of sleep, you need to get 10 hours the night before the race. So now, not only are they nervous about the event, they’re nervous that they’re not getting sleep,


Chris Case  25:13

There’s pressure to perform intheir sleep, right?


Trevor Connor  25:16

And it just kind of cycles to by the time they get to the start line, they’re a wreck. I actually have, I will quote that research that I read to my athletes saying one night a bad sleep doesn’t affect your performance. And when I know it’s an athlete who will struggle with that, I’ll go look, you’re not going to sleep well tonight. It’s not gonna hurt. You know what? Put on a movie relax. Yeah, if you can get some sleep great. If you can’t, you’ll be fine. And you just got to take that pressure, not, as Chris said. Now, you don’t want to just, you know, want to add the pressure  of sleep on top of the pressure of the event.


Chris Case  25:54

Yep, exactly.


Dr. Shona Halson  25:55

Yep, hundred percent couldn’t agree more. And I think, you know, that’s a balance that I try to make sure I provide when I’m working with athletes, because you have someone come in and telling you how important sleep is and how to fix and all the things that you need to do. But you don’t want them to take it to the point where this becomes something that they, you know, that they obsess about. And they’re you know, there are certainly some athletes that will do that, that will take every single thing that you say, as gospel, and we’ll try to, to make sure that they do everything, you know, they put too much pressure on themselves, and they get obsessed by the numbers and they want to know everything. And that that isn’t always the best, the best approach. And then of course, you get athlete to just do a good guest. And okay, this is you know, there’s a couple of different sides of the coin.

How do you monitor sleep and what devices work best to do so?

Chris Case  26:41

Well, the the fact that we’re talking about sleep quality helps us transition maybe to this next section, which is about changing behavior and improving things. Of course to do that, well, you have to assess your sleep. So maybe we should talk a little bit about the ways in which people can assess sleep quality.


Trevor Connor  27:06

Before you answer that, I just want to point out something that you you’ve written about several times that I thought was was very interesting, very perceptive, which is you said, it is education is not enough that most people know that they need more sleep. So that knowledge that education isn’t enough to change behaviors. Let’s as Chris said, Let’s talk with first How do you monitor?


Dr. Shona Halson  27:34

Yeah, and monitoring sleep is another one that we could probably do like four podcasts on. But to keep it simple, I guess that what’s happening at the moment is there’s an emergence of sleeps popping up, there’s emergence of technologies to that claim, or do measure sleep, they typically go to market without being independently validated against the gold standard. So what happens we get the devices, we do the hard work, we pay for the studies to validate them. So we know whether they’re good or not. I will say though, more and more of these, I used to be of the opinion that we shouldn’t go anywhere near some of these commercial devices that you can just buy, you know, over the counter. However, I think there’s some pros to them. I think there’s also some negatives. So some of you commercial devices like fitbits, and whoops, and these kinds of things, which we’re now starting to get some data around, I think the positives are that they can start a conversation, they can get someone thinking of an athlete thinking about their sleep, they can maybe start to talk to practitioners. And look if the if the data is not perfect, if it’s not 100%, comparable to the gold standard, as long as you’re comparing to yourself. And you’re looking for big changes over time. You know, I think there’s there’s some uses for them there.


Dr. Shona Halson  28:56

We obviously for the purpose of research are going to use expensive research grade devices, which take a lot of analysis and they’re still the the techniques that I would typically use even when I work with elite athletes.


Dr. Shona Halson  29:09

And so but the commercial devices, I think, you know, we have to know that, in general, most of these devices, overestimate sleep, they’re good at measuring wake, sorry, they’re good at measuring sleep, they’re not that good at measuring wake. So the more time you spend awake in your sleep, so the worse sleepers, the more they’re going to overestimate sleep. So comparing between, you know, between different people is probably not a great idea. But comparing within the in within the individual over time. is okay. I mean, there’s things like questionaires and diaries that can give you a bit of an indication there’s plenty of them around and you’re as long as your athlete or usually monitoring yourself or being honest, then you know, they can be really useful as well. You know, there’s obviously pros and cons to each of the devices. The research grade ones we know more about, we know their algorithms that we know how they measure sleep, because they’ve been validated and published, the new commercial devices, we don’t know that much about.


Dr. Shona Halson  30:10

The thing that I do worry about with some of these commercial devices that either give you a number, or a readiness score or recovery score, whatever it might be, is there a times when I think they’re just that’s just not useful. So you could imagine waking up in the morning of Olympic final and saying your recovery score is 20% out of 100, like, it’s probably not going to help you, I’m probably going to probably going to do some harm. And having the numbers every single day that you can that some people will obsess about, or some people may use as an excuse. For some people, that’s just not a good idea. For other people, the numbers are motivating, and can help you improve your sleep by trying to do better and better all the time, then I think, I think then they can be useful. But I do think there’s a proportion of people were having the numbers all the time, is just not a good idea. And that’s why so many of these devices, we see people use them for a month, and then they end up in the second drawer and don’t get looked at again.


Dr. Shona Halson  31:13

So some pros and cons. I think they usually work out if you’re someone who likes the numbers, whether you’re happy to just look at yourself, you’re not comparing across with your teammates or anything like that. And then knowing that okay, if I see something that I don’t like or that I’m not sure about you actually go and seek some some professional medical help to try and move things forward.


Trevor Connor  31:36

So you, when you evaluated so your calling these commercial sleep technology, CST, when you are evaluating them, I my jaw kind of dropped when I saw this, you said the average difference in total sleep time between CST and- this one of these words I’m gonna


Chris Case  31:53



Trevor Connor  31:57

You guys said it. That’s that’s the gold standard. That’s the research grade. So you said the difference between that and CST was 51.5 minutes plus or minus 152 minutes, which is half a night of asleep.


Dr. Shona Halson  32:17

Yep. Yep. Yeah, it’s there’s some very high variability, I think the average, across all of these devices are somewhere between six and 67 minutes is the average. And again, that’s related to the fact that they don’t, devices are different. And some devices measure wake better than others. But generally, they don’t measure wake very well, they kind of can’t work out, you know, because they’re based on movement, it’s an accelerometer, it’s harder to know whether a small movement is wake when a person is awake, or they’re actually just moving within their sleep. So it’s a challenge. And that’s why I say, you know, from a research perspective, we use the ones that I trust as much as possible, they still have the limitations, but yet, looking within the individual is important. And the challenge is when I come in with my research grade devices into a team, and they go, Oh, yeah, but I’ve been wearing this device and your devices, show me something completely different. That’s where it gets messy. Yeah, like I kind of trust mine a bit more. But you know, we need to that’s where you need to know, the devices like, I need to be on top of all these devices that come out all the time, because athletes will get them first. And I need to be able to know, okay, these ones have this particular challenge or they’re good in this space, but they’re not good in that space. So that’s where I think we need to keep on top of the new technology.


Trevor Connor  33:43

So which are the ones you’d recommend? And I’m asking aware that you just published a validation study on the whoop, that seems to be pretty promising.


Dr. Shona Halson  33:53

Yeah, so the thing that when we’ve got another study coming out soon, on the web, and the thing, again, like science, it’s gray, it’s not black and white. But you know, when we look at sleep, there’s two ways of looking at it, there’s two stage sleep, which is if you’re awake, or if you’re asleep, and that’s what most of the devices do. But some of them then step into making some calculations around four stage sleep, which is the stages of sleep. So stage 123, and REM sleep. So the whop is actually pretty good at measuring two stage sleep. So sleep, so that what a typical accelerometer will do when it starts to get into the four stage sleep, so telling you what phases of sleep it’s not quite as good. And so we probably wouldn’t go down that path from a research perspective in terms of using that device for the four stage sleep.


Dr. Shona Halson  34:50

The other thing to note is that they’re score, that you know the recovery score you know, the the score that gives you that we don’t know Anything about that. So we don’t, we don’t know the algorithms, we don’t know how they calculate it. So when we talk about what we say, Yep, two stage sleep, I’d be pretty comfortable using that it compares to, to research quality devices. But the problem is, is when some of the devices keep interfering things. But the good news is, is the sleep laboratory that we work with are working with work to improve their algorithms and to keep making it better. So most of these devices will go through second iterations, 30 iterations, and they they become better and better as they go along. But yeah, we tend to be the, the people that have to go ahead and do these projects. And and you know, the other thing is some of these commercial devices, you can access the raw data. So you know, with the watches that we use, we can access the raw data we can go out that night was, you know, I know what happened there. I know what the mistake is, I’ll delete that section, you know, but with these devices, you just get these random numbers generated. And then you have to, you know, there’s not much you can do with them, because we can’t access the the epoch by epoch data that we need.


Trevor Connor  36:07

So what are some other devices that you would feel relatively comfortable with? Knowing that most of us can’t use research grade equipment?


Dr. Shona Halson  36:15

Yeah. Yeah, look, and again, I think it’s not so much the devices themselves, it’s how they used. I mean, I don’t have a problem with people using using a Fitbit. If they’re understanding that it’s probably overestimating sleep, and that it can be used to start a conversation and to get some support. I think there’s I think theaura ring has some has some good potential, I think the whoops, got some, you know, some positives there as well. I think probably the Fitbit is sort of below those in terms of quality. But again, how are you using it, who’s giving you feedback, if you whatever device you’ve got, if you’re talking to someone who actually knows what they’re doing, and tells you how to address your sleep, then that’s great, because that’s not none of the devices actually do that. So it’s like standing on the scales and home and the scale and scales telling you, you’re overweight. Oh, that’s great, but what am I gonna do about it? And these watches do the same, they tell you, your metrics, but not how to fix it. And so, again, it’s talking to someone who knows what they’re talking about, who can give you some good honest feedback and some strategies then to improve your sleep.


Chris Case  37:29

For those of us that don’t actually know what polysomnography is this gold standard to which you’re comparing all of these devices? Would you mind just describing what that is? what that involves? And why we can’t do that at home?


Dr. Shona Halson  37:44

Great question. It’s actually, it’s usually done in a laboratory setting. So it’s very controlled, you are very wired up. So there’s electrodes on the scalp to measure brain electrical activity. There’s electrodes usually on the side of the face to look at eye movement, because that’s obviously around rapid REM, rapid eye movements that you can measure that usually have some EMG. On the muscles, we tip, we typically do that in athletes, because they move a lot during sleep. And also, there’s some disorders like restless leg syndrome, where there’s a lot of movement, and breathing straps are warm as well, usually two, to really accurately measure breathing. And there’s usually some ECG on there as well to look at heart rate and heart rate variability. You combine them all together, and what you can do, and mainly it’s, it’s mainly based off the brain activity is to look at the state that can tell you what stage of sleep that you’re in, but it’s still manually scored. So someone has to score every 30 seconds of data. So it’s a it’s something that is expensive, it’s not overly practical, you need real expertise to be able to do that. And so again, it’s the sort of thing where I’d suggest an athlete would only do that if we suspected they had a medical Sleep Disorder, or we use it when we’re doing research. So we really want to understand if an intervention is working, and you really want that high level details specific, you know, yes, this nutritional intervention works, because it increases deep sleep, or this nutritional intervention works because you they fall asleep faster, and you want a really controlled environment. That’s how we would we would do it, but it’s not a it’s probably not a common thing. It’s probably not something that athletes will do a lot of, except to say we just published a study in rugby league players that found a relative like a lot, a high proportion of, of the players that had some sort of mild, mild, not excessive, but just mild Sleep apnea. And they’re very lean, and then very muscular, but they don’t have a lot of body fat. And so that was a little bit higher than we thought so polysomnography in some form we would use also to assess sleep apnea.

Why do athletes move more in their sleep?

Chris Case  39:56

You mentioned in there that athletes move More in their sleep. And there might be more per higher prevalence of restless legs syndrome. Do you know why that is? Is there an easy answer to that?


Dr. Shona Halson  40:10

Yeah, no, we don’t. And that’s that some of the things that were I mean, I, you know, you only have to sit next to an athlete on a bus or a plane. And, you know, not all of them that there’s a proportion that I would say are kind of twitchy. And one of the swimmers I used to work with, he used to say, he used to wake himself up because he would, he’d be backstroking in his sleep. And we actually once did a sleep study, we had a cyclist in a sleep lab, and he’s on video, and he’s obviously dreaming about winning a stage and he throws his arms up in the air. It’s kind of cool. But I think, you know, maybe it’s something to do with all the neural activity that athletes, you know, that they may be experiencing. It may be due to soreness being uncomfortable, it’s still a bit of a question that we haven’t got all the answers to. But we do see that some athletes do move around a lot more than the general population.


Chris Case  41:09

Yes, you are describing me. I wake up most mornings, tangled, absolutely tangled in the sheets. My wife, we have a king sized bed, she does not sleep very well, even though we’re four feet apart. So you are describing me. So I know what this is all about restless leg syndrome. Yes. You’ve also describe me there too. So I don’t know if I’ve ever won a stage of the Tour de France in my sleep, but I’ll ask my wife.


Trevor Connor  41:39

I’m sure she has other ways of describing it.


Chris Case  41:41

Yes,  why are you punching me again?

Behavioral tricks to improve sleep and how to put them into action

Chris Case  41:47

Well, you also sort of hinted at the fact that, and Trevor did as well, knowledge is not enough here. It doesn’t change your behavior. These these devices, whether they are accurate or not, isn’t as maybe important as the fact that they start a conversation about what can I do? How do I change technique? What behaviosr should I or should I not have before bed or in that time leading up to to sleep? So perhaps we take the conversation there?


Dr. Shona Halson  42:23

Yeah. And look, I think that’s, of all the work that I’m interested in at the moment is, is that its behavior change. And you know, anyone trying to change any behavior knows that it’s, it’s difficult. I mean, you know, you only have to look at the worker and trying to get people to exercise more, eat less, you know, it’s really hard, we’re not going in a good direction. And so knowledge is not always power, right? We know what to do. But how do we actually make people or encourage people to make the changes.


Dr. Shona Halson  42:55

I find there’s a few times when it’s easier than others. So athletes who may be injured, or who are not getting selected, or who at the end of their careers tend to go, Oh, I’m going to start paying attention. And I’m going to start trying to do all the things that I should have done years ago. So sometimes it’s when the wheels fall off a little bit that you can really, you know, make some change. I think showing an individual data, these are your numbers measured with the best devices that we have available. And this is how, for example, you might compare to someone else in your team who’s a really good sleeper, and a really good performer. I think comparisons to your peers, and the successful peers is something that can help. So actually having their own numbers and comparing.


Dr. Shona Halson  43:46

And then I think we also have to think about what we do, and can we create a better environment to protect an athletes like. So for example, if a lot of professional football clubs now we’ll have a sleep park, sleep pods, or sleep areas, or bunks or something so that your two sessions a day, and you can’t go home to have that after lunch nap, then they’ve got options to do that there. Let’s not have training sessions at a ridiculous hour in the morning. Meaning that they can’t, that they can’t get a decent night’s sleep. And sometimes, you know, finances are a problem. But if you can fly people the night before, rather than waking up at you know, 330 for 530 start for flight that can also help.


Dr. Shona Halson  44:38

So thinking about what we do and how we provide education. So yes, we do the monitoring, and we do some education and we give the individual feedback but a one off is probably not enough. So lots of consistent and persistent messages for saying the same things and for me, like I often come into teams and I’m there for a short period of time, and then I’m out. So for me, it’s more important to educate the people that see the athletes all the time. And whether that’s the, you know, strength and conditioning coach, the soft tissue therapist, or whoever it is that’s really around these people that can just ask the questions, we can put some education around that simple and easy to read. You know, I’ve like putting it in recovery spaces where you’ve got a captured audience, or, you know, in the gym near the stationary bikes, or something where they can see it. And so there’s this little constant reminders all the time of, of the things that they need to be doing. And for me, one off monitoring is good, but it’s not everything. So you know, to me, you know, every six months, you might just do a little one week, check up and make sure that you know, everything’s going going okay, so I think that is one of the issues as well as leaks becoming popular. Teens are going, Oh, I’m measuring sleep, I’m taking that box, I’m doing all the right things. But it’s not a one offs, probably not really going to, I’m going to cut it.


Chris Case  46:05

So when you talk about the education that you need to be consistent and persistent about what are those things that are in that pamphlet, or whatever the materials are that you give to these athletes, or these teams, what does that entail?



I think we do try to individualize it, in some respects. And each team, you know, some things might be different to others, in terms of their challenges, but to be really general, I would say things like, going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time as often as you can, that consistency of routine. It’s like being jet lagged, if you’re going to bed at you know, three hours different one night, and you’re going to bed at 10 o’clock normally, and then one night, it’s 2am. And the next night, nine o’clock, like just keeping consistent bed and wake times as often as possible. I’m keeping a really good eye out on the things that disturb their sleep. Is it caffeine? Is it phone use? Is it computer gaming? Are there things that just creep in to an athlete sleep time that they can avoid?


Dr. Shona Halson  47:11

And my I say this all the time, and people will probably sick of hearing it from me. But I say you know, don’t stay up late for something you wouldn’t get up early for. So what I mean by that is, would you stay out? Would you set your alarm for two hours early to watch two episodes of something great on Netflix. No, you would never do that. So why do we stay up two hours late at night to do that. So you know, there’s some things that you have to do. And it might be work, it might be study, and yes, you might have to get up early for it. But if the things that you’re voluntarily doing that you would not normally set your alarm in the morning for reconsider how important it is to do it at night. So there’s things that sabotage later those things get in the way, try to be consistent as often as possible.


Dr. Shona Halson  48:01

And try to manage or deal with any stresses as good as you can. And you know, that can go from a range of, you know, maybe you’d need some breathing exercises. And you know, you need to meditate or whatever that may be all the way through to you know, there’s an anxiety disorder here that needs to be addressed by a professional. And often because we obviously we know that stress and anxiety aren’t great for sleep. So we want to make sure that we’re we’re addressing that. So I think they’re, they’re really the key things.


Dr. Shona Halson  48:37

The other one, I guess is to make sure your bedroom environment is optimal for sleep, is it cool, dark and quiet? You know, the number of times in athletes said to me, I thought, you know, I forgot to close the curtains, or, you know, the next door neighbors were really noisy, almost all the classic is they just leave their phone on all night. And you know, oh, but it’s on vibrate. And like that will also wake you up. And we actually had we did a study on rugby union players, one of my PhD students did and in this proper sleep lab or wired up, and they were allowed to have their phones in the room as long as it was on, on silent. But of course, many of them had it on vibrate, which still woke them up. So if you still want to use you still want your phone on in the sleep lab, you know, there’s probably something not quite right there. So yeah, and again, like I say, it’s not rocket science. All this stuff is everything you know, it’s all the things your mom taught you as a kid. It’s not that difficult. But it’s just getting people to make those little changes, put your phone in the bathroom, put your phone on airplane mode, your alarm will still go off. You know, there’s things that you can try to do to just take away that temptation set up your environment better. It’s like not having junk food in the fridge. Set your environment up better. So you’re learning likely to be tempted by your phone.


Chris Case  50:02

Yeah, I absolutely find that if I have a policy of not having my phone anywhere near me, even on the same floor of my house when I’m sleeping, but if for some reason it ends up in the room, or I know it’s around it, it definitely disrupts how I think about sleep that night.


Trevor Connor  50:25

Why limit that to sleep? I’d like that policy 20 hours a day.


Trevor Connor  50:33

Pro cyclists, Erica Clevenger leaves nothing to chance when it comes to getting quality sleep. She offers some insights on how she optimizes her own routine.


Erica Clevenger  50:42

I don’t think I’m saying anything new when I say that sleep is very incredibly important. I would choose sleep over a lot of other different recovery strategies for sure. It’s definitely a huge part of my training plan, actually, in my mind asleep. And it’s actually something I’ve put a lot of work into this summer. With all the, you know, the lack of racing that we’ve had, I’ve had a little bit more time to spend a little bit more energy on trying to figure out how to really optimize my sleep.


Chris Case  51:10

How do you optimize sleep? What do you do?


Erica Clevenger  51:13

Sleeping in like a cool, dark place. For example, this summer, we installed a ceiling fan in our room, just so that I have a little bit cooler in there, I actually put in a blackout curtain in my room as well. And so very dark, actually in there. And I think that that really helps. I also have a humidifier in my room just because it’s so dry in Colorado. And because of my asthma, sometimes I struggle to sleep. And then really establishing a good like sort of bedtime routine is something I’ve also really tried to work on. And I struggle with it because we don’t always have a good routine. Because you know, if you’re a racer, and a grad student like I am, you’re traveling or you’re doing a lot of different things on campus. And it’s hard to establish a routine. But a bedtime routine is definitely one of the things that I really focus on. And every night before bed, I really like reading, and it really helps me sort of relax.


Trevor Connor  52:08

Here’s a question I have for you. Because all this advice that you are bringing up is great. I do I got a good laugh out of this in in one of your reviews, you talked about the five common errors that we make and trying to change of behavior. And number one on your list was appealing to common sense. Which like I said, I got a good laugh out of it’s basically if you’re trying to change somebody’s behavior, trying to appeal to their common sense, not a good strategy. Which is what we’re doing here so that you get a good laugh out of that.


Trevor Connor  52:44

But I’ll give you an example. I actually this year had an athlete, one of her goals was to improve her sleep. So we talked about how much sleep you’re getting Oh, five, six hours a night. How much would you like to get? I’d like to get eight hours a night. I asked her why. Why not training? Well, I have a hard time focusing at work, I’d be more productive, I’d be more effective if I got more sleep. And for a couple months, we had this kind of broken record conversation where every week when we would talk, it’d be the same conversation. How did things go with changing your sleep? The strategy I gave her was, look, just start doing it. Go to bed. She’s like I said, What? What does it look like for you? If you’re getting into sleep? You watch. It’s like I want to be in bed, like winding down by 930 in bed by 10. So I went okay, this week start doing that. And you could you could always just even though we’re on the phone, I could almost just hear her tense up and go but but no. And so that, you know, we’d have our next call, how to go. I never was able to get to bed by 10. Why? I just have work. I have all these other things I go. But why do you want more sleep? Well, because I’m not very productive with my work. So if you got more sleep, you’d be more productive, and then you’d be able to get more sleep. Yes, yeah. So this week, I want you to try to go to bed. Wine down at 930 no matter what, just stop at 930. Go to bed by 10. Okay, I’ll try the same conversation next week. This went on for months. So that’s your I was trying to appeal to common sense. So we all know this. She knew this. But when it came down to take action, I just hear I’d say take the action. You can just hear her the gears going in her head. But no, I can’t do that. I can’t actually do that. So how what is that final step to get the athlete to say, No, I am going to do that.

Dr. Shona Halson  54:35

Yeah, look, that’s a great question. I wish I had a really equally good answer. But what I in my experience, small changes that are achievable over time is kind of what we what we need. So I had a rower, not dissimilar example, but he was like there’s no way I can go to bed before 1030 Just couldn’t go to bed, I’m not tired wouldn’t happen. And I looked at his data from the sleep watch. And I was like, you fall asleep in either zero or one minute. As soon as you put your head on the pillow, you’re out. And that tells me you’re sleep deprived, it tells me that you can likely go to bed earlier, the rolls get up early, I would have loved him to go to bed at 930, even nine o’clock. But so I, my suggestion to him was let’s go with 15 minutes, hes like ugh I don’t know. He said he couldn’t sleep for 1030. And he was just this week, and maybe you won’t know at the first night. But just for a week, just try be in bed by 1015. Of course, he could do it. And so that sort of worked for a bit. And then we added another 15 minutes. And so I think if it’s a big chunk that they can’t just seemed too hard, then I think that can be a challenge.


Dr. Shona Halson  55:53

And the other thing that I have found a little, a little bit successful, and mainly for athletes that struggle to fall asleep. And it sounds completely counterintuitive, but it’s what’s done in the insomnia literature is don’t go to bed until you’re actually sleeping. Because what happens is people hop into bed, and then they get frustrated, they can’t sleep. And so putting set time like it, you know, if the swimmers want to get up at eight and said, Sorry, at six in the saying you are you really need to be in bed at 10 o’clock at night to get the sleep that you need, it’s not going to happen because they’re likely not even sleepy then. And so encourage, especially if they’ve got if they’ve people a little bit over thinkers, and they hop into bed and all they do is think oh I’m supposed to be asleep now, but they’re absolutely not sleepy, it’ll  derail things. So going to bed when they’re actually sleepy, because then they’re more likely to hop in bed and just sleep rather than hop in bed and check out my phone on TV on I’m going to game. So that can be a useful strategy as well. But to get athletes to just engage can be really hard and my experience, the better they are, the higher paid they are, the more genetically gifted they are, it can be harder, because they’ve got people –


Chris Case  57:09

they’re more strong headed, yes.


Dr. Shona Halson  57:11

Yeah, exactly.


Trevor Connor  57:12

Well, you just touched on one I was gonna ask you about because I am somebody who has always struggled with insomnia. And I’ve mostly found my routine for it. But the one thing I’ve never been able to solve is I generally don’t go to bed until about midnight, I would love to go to bed at 11. But the fact of the matter is, every time I’ve tried to go to bed by 11 that kicks in the insomnia, and then I’m still awake at two o’clock. So I’d rather lose the hour of sleep, but no, I can go I can lie down at midnight and fall asleep. So is that just a deal with it, That’s the best you can do? Or is there strategies for people like me,


Dr. Shona Halson  57:55

it’s probably a couple of things, you know, to think about, I like the idea of being flexible around your sleep. And I know that’s completely counterintuitive to what I said about routines. But knowing that okay, you know, if I will go to bed half an hour earlier or later, you know, within a short timespan that’s probably okay. Because I think people who get really rigid about their thinking around sleep can can be problematic, can get into some some problems. The other thing is you know, short little changes so like you know, going to bed trying to go to bed at quarter to midnight or whatever it might be but still going to bed whenever you are sleepy, but one of the I think one of the best things and you know, it might be something you’ve tried already but I’ve seen some pretty good success with this is having a pre bed routine. So an example might be cleaning your teeth, having a shower, clean your teeth, read a book, whatever those three things are, and you just repeat them over and over and over again and it becomes a bit like a you know classical conditioning response where the body goes, Oh, quick had a shower, clean teeth, reading a book, I know what’s going to happen next – it’s sleep. And what happens is the you’ve got the blood pressure drops your physiology changes because there’s this expectation you have the body loves routine. So if you can pick a few things, and you know, some people that might I worked with an ex US Special Forces soldier who was a mess, sleep a mess, and for him the scent was eucalyptus oil, because it was it was a scent that he used to wash his kids hair with. And that was enough to just trigger this, you know, relaxation responses, I’m in a good place. So we clean his teeth and shut everything down. He took his you know, security, his front door, and then he smelled some Eucalyptus and that turned him from someone who needed you know, sleeping tablets and the most unbelievable range of medication into someone I would say now it’s one of the best sleepers I’ve ever seen. And all it was was just finding this habitual series of Things that he could do any now we can take it wherever he goes traveling, you know, whatever.


Chris Case  1:00:05

Lucky guy that he found that


Dr. Shona Halson  1:00:08

Worked for him. Yeah.


Trevor Connor  1:00:12

Former pro cyclist Cameron Cockburn addresses the idea that every individual has a more natural bent towards being either a night owl or an early bird, and has some tips and tricks that you might like to try to improve your sleep hygiene.


Cameron Cogburn  1:00:27

I’ve had periods where I, I’m a really good sleeper, and then periods where I don’t like my natural tendency is I’m very much a night owl. And so that really kind of clashed with when I was riding full time. I mean, I would sleep from 2am to noon, that’s the best I could manage. Like, I was getting 10 hours of sleep every day, but I was sleeping till noon every day, it’s always been really hard for me to do these early morning now like to get on a consistent schedule and, and optimize my sleep such that I can day in day out, you know, have a consistent sleep schedule. The times I have come closest to achieving this, one of the biggest tips I’ve heard and I probably need to employ is that I had a colleague who used to set an alarm at 8pm every night, and he would start getting ready for bed then. So 8pm, the alarm goes off, he would put away the laptop, put away the electronics, he had excellent sleep hygiene. I think also, cooling down the room helps immensely. It helps bring down your core temperature to a level that you have optimized sleep cycles. So having that cool room can make a huge difference. Personally, I have blackout curtains in the bedroom, I think light is you know, I’m very light sensitive. light will just energize me. So blackout curtains in the bedroom, an eye shade even, even though I batted off most nights, just having it there can help especially you get used to it such that when you’re on the road, you know you’re not it’s not something new. So the eyeshade, ear plugs as well. And then finally, yeah, devices, put them away. You know, you can use apps like flux or night shift. Finally, I think setting a consistent wakeup time at a certain time and just start getting up at that time. And the first week will might be rough, but your body will eventually adapt. And, you know, you’ll start getting up regularly and getting tired at the appropriate time at night.

The night-owl verse early-bird paradigm

Chris Case  1:02:59

I wonder if in a best case scenario, in an ideal world, we would all find that perfect pattern of sleep without these for lack of better term tricks. So some people naturally correct me if I’m wrong, but naturally seem to be night owls and other people seem to be early risers or early birds. And I wonder if there’s truth to that. And also how you would suggest somebody go about finding what their circadian rhythm should dictate their sleep pattern be?


Dr. Shona Halson  1:03:41

Yeah, so there definitely is evidence of morning, evening, and neutral people. And then even in between those. So there’s a questionnaire aptly named the morning this evening, this questionnaire. That’s super easy. You can find on the internet easy to score. It just asks you a series of questions around your preferences. And yeah, that’ll give you an indication of what you are. We found we looked at the chronotype of elite athletes and we found and they’re mainly Olympic athletes, and we found that the majority are early morning to neutral. We don’t we didn’t see many night owls at all in these and unsurprising if you’re a night owl, you’re probably not gonna last as a swimmer or a rower or triathlete. But yeah, simple ways that people can go and look in and see what they are. And the thing that I think people sort of get into the trap of doing then is trying to change it, and it’s not really possible. It is, you know, from the evidence seems to suggest that it’s, you know, on average, most people are pretty much genetically pre determined, and it’s not one of those things that you can turn yourself from an early morning person into a night owl.


Chris Case  1:04:52

Why would that be genetically predetermined? What would be the reason in terms of evolution for that


Dr. Shona Halson  1:05:00

Yeah, and again, this is only one aspect that I’ve heard of. And I don’t know if this is true, but this is one I’ve that I’ve heard of is that if we, you know, if you’re in a tribal situation, and you’re, you know, you’re living off the land, whatever it might look like, you don’t want everyone to be sleeping at the same time, you want some people awake to protect your group early in the morning, and you want some people who are still awake late at night to protect the group. So there’s certain benefits to having people being able to sleep preferentially at different times. So yeah, that’s one of the reasons I’ve heard my thought idea that actually kind of that resonated, made a little bit of sense to me, but I’m sure there’s other reasons out there, but that’s one of the ones that I’ve heard a number of times.


Trevor Connor  1:05:50

I’ve actually read that research and that is what I’ve seen a lot in the Paleolithic research that Yeah, you need people awake at all times to help protect the tribe. So there was a benefit to it.


Chris Case  1:06:03

Even without the Netflix there were some night owls just staying up watching out for, you know, enemy tribes, hanging out sitting by the fireplace.


Trevor Connor  1:06:14

Your question about can you ever change, I’m a night owl. I coached a team as you know, called the morning glory cycling club for four years, all the rides were at 5:30am, four years, multiple times a week, I was getting up to coach that ride. And even after four years, every single time, I would wake up at 455 and go not making it today, I’m calling in sick. And I hate my routine, honestly get to the ride. It was 10 minutes to bike from my apartment to the ride. So I knew I needed to be out the door by 520. Which means I needed to get changed by 510, which meant my alarm went off at 455 I would take 10 minutes to sit on my couch and hate life. And and convince myself not to go back to bed. Five minutes to quickly eat some food then get changed and go. Yeah. At four years, I never got a little bit easier.


Dr. Shona Halson  1:07:18

Yeah, I that’s the middle of the night for me too. So that would be exciting.

Common myths about sleep: Plants in the bedroom, pharmacotherapy, and blue light

Chris Case  1:07:26

So now that we’ve all clarified how much our sleep is unhealthy… Okay, well, let’s turn our attention to maybe some myths about sleep. One, we have to bring this up, Trevor, because we’re cyclists and you and I have both heard this for years, it’s kind of a urban legend about the Belgiums,


Trevor Connor  1:07:45

Messed with teammates minds on this one.


Chris Case  1:07:48

Yes. So, Dr. Halson, is there any truth to the fact that you shouldn’t sleep with plants in the room? Because they suck the oxygen out of the room and it disrupts sleep?



To know what I have heard that I am not seen any evidence to support it. But when you think you know, the amount of carbon dioxide the plants produces nothing compared to, you know, a human, Yeah, I don’t know. It’s an interesting one. I haven’t seen any, any data to support it. So…


Chris Case  1:08:20

I respect you for giving a scientific answer to that. And then talking about data.


Trevor Connor  1:08:26

I had a teammate I think he was 21. But we all nicknamed him Junior. I’ll leave him nameless because he-


Chris Case  1:08:33

He was gullible?


Trevor Connor  1:08:35

Gullible, little young for his age. And so we convinced him of that myth that he couldn’t have plants. So we noticed that if we went to hotel rooms where there was plants, he would get them out of his room. So we got really mean and we would go out and get plants and put them in his bedroom when he was sleeping. Just to mess with him.


Dr. Shona Halson  1:08:58

Just to mess with him, nice. Love it.


Chris Case  1:09:01

Well, let’s let’s turn our attention to maybe something a little bit more serious: pharmacotherapy. Is there anything any truth to the fact that these help or hurt your sleep?



Yeah, and it’s a good question, because I actually have got a study plan for next year to look at the effects of sleep medication in athletes on sleep architecture, we would have had it done this year except for COVID. But and the reason why it’s important for us is because there’s not a single study that has ever looked at what happens to sleep architecture, so the phases of sleep, when sleep medication is given to athletes. There’s some information in the general population, that there’s less deep sleep with certain types of sleep medications. There’s also evidence of course, they can become habit forming, depending on which type and there’s also some evidence that there may be cognitive issues in the morning. So feelings of grogginess headache hangover effects. So my preference always, and look I’m not a medical doctor so I don’t, you know, delve into these realms too much from a recommendation perspective, I’m more like to investigate. But my perspective is that natural sleep, you know, every, every medication has a side effect. So, you know, if we can get natural sleep and encourage natural sleep, that’s certainly the way forward because we just don’t understand enough about sleep medication in athletes, I think there’s a place for them, if you’re someone that’s not going to get any sleep, or you may be experiencing some jet lag, and you’re just trying to get some sleep. But I think it’s definitely something that, you know, a lot of sports doctors that I work with now are really cautious about their use, and keep them for, you know, really strict, certain conditions.


Chris Case  1:10:52

And are you including things like melatonin here? Or is that a different category?



Yeah, Melatonin is probably a different category, it’s you tend to get more natural sleep, it tends to not disturb sleep architecture as much. But again, we need to remember that while it has soporific effect, so it makes you sleepy. Melatonin also has body clock shifting ethics. So it’s not the sort of thing that you probably want to wake up in the middle of the night and take. So it’s we do keep that one separate.


Chris Case  1:11:23

And can you become habituated to that?


Dr. Shona Halson  1:11:28

Well, it’s interesting, some people talk about it being sort of habit forming. So we’ve become a little bit dependent, whether that’s not really a physiological thing. It’s more you feel like you need it to actually sleep. And if you don’t have it, you can’t. But it doesn’t seem to have the more addictive properties of some or the other, you know, the older, more heavy duty sleep medications that used to be more common.


Chris Case  1:11:56

And what about blue light?


Trevor Connor  1:12:00

and general device usage?


Chris Case  1:12:02

Yeah, yes, some of these things have been getting a lot of press what what do you what do you say about these?


Dr. Shona Halson  1:12:07

Yeah. And look, I know, there has been a couple of studies that said, you know, that sort of go either way. But I think and I was involved in one that sort of suggested it may not be as bad in athletes. But importantly, to note, we didn’t use polysomnography. In that study, we didn’t use the gold standard, it was sort of a, it was a study that was done in a in a late population where we were, we couldn’t do it. So I still am someone who thinks that minimizing blue light just based on the mechanism of the body clock and where it is, and how light through the eyes can affect it, especially blue light. I think it’s worth minimizing that as much as as much as possible, even though the scientists, you know, some studies, yes, some studies, no, but I think the definitive the higher quality studies are the ones that have used polysomnography. And so I still recommend steering clear of the of the blue light, if possible.


Trevor Connor  1:13:02

Now, what about just general device usage? Should we be turning devices off several hours before we go to bed? I did notice in your study, you said that there’s actually even some evidence that using some devices used effectively can get people to calm down and relax and actually help them fall asleep.



Yeah, I think it depends on the type of device that we’re talking about, you know, if it’s computer gaming, and it’s very competitive, and you’re playing against someone, you know, and especially athletes get a bit competitive, then that can be quite bad. And you know, social media can be something that’s really stressful for people. And so I think it depends on the device and what you’re doing. If you’re listening to relaxing music, I mean, you know, we’re so used to using music athletes are, you know, to pump them up before they’re gay or in training, like if you’re using it for the opposite and helping you to wind down or you’re listening to something, some sort of meditation or mindfulness or breathing activities then, Great. So I think it does depend on what you’re doing and how you’re using it. But if it’s something that has a stimulatory effect, then yes, probably not something that is a good idea before bed.


Chris Case  1:14:18

Well, Dr. Halson, we like to close out every episode of Fast Talk with our take home messages, sort of recapping the episode, and giving our listeners the most important messages. I’d like to start with you. What would you say is the most important take home messages about or that we’ve discussed in this episode today?



I think the most important ones and sort of where I’m at at the moment is measurement of sleep can be useful. It’s what you do with the data that’s most important. And, you know, how do we engage in effective behavioral change. Start to think about what are the things that we can do to get whether it’s ourselves or our athletes, creating a good environment? What’s the education? What are the things that we need to do to help move them forward, because the education and the monitoring is useful. But it’s not enough all the time.


Chris Case  1:15:20

It’s interesting that we put so much emphasis on our training. And oftentimes, we don’t put an equal amount of emphasis or an equal importance on recovery generally, and sleep specifically. I’m one of those people that feels like if you’re training really hard, you need to sleep, quote unquote, really hard; you need to balance those two things, train hard, sleep harder, sleep longer, sleep better do everything you can to get sleep, because it is so critical. If you’re going to sacrifice, sleep quality, or quantity, or if it’s been disrupted, you should consider doing fewer interval sessions or maybe reducing the length of the ride a little bit. Because your body won’t be primed to take advantage of that workload i it doesn’t get the sleep it needs. It’s such a critical component here. So I was really fascinated by this discussion today. And I hope everybody gets a better night’s sleep after hearing some of what Dr. Halson and our other guests had to say.


Chris Case  1:16:28

Trevor, what do you think?


Trevor Connor  1:16:30

Well, so first of all, something I have to admit to you that’s either going to impress you or horrify you. Last week, I had one of my bouts of insomnia. And I learned a long time ago when you are dealing with insomnia, don’t lie in bed and try to fall asleep.


Chris Case  1:16:47

Don’t fight it. Yeah,


Trevor Connor  1:16:48

Just get out of bed, go do something. So I was at the time reading your research. So I have to admit to you that I was up until three o’clock in the morning reading your research about the importance of sleep.


Dr. Shona Halson  1:17:02

Well, it could be worse. You could be at least hopefully that was some other some use. But yeah, I think you got to find what works for you.


Trevor Connor  1:17:11

So my one minute talking as a coach who’s worked with athletes who have asked questions about sleep and just thinking about the most common questions I get are a) don’t make it another stressor in your life. Yes, you want to improve sleep you want to get enough sleep. But sometimes that just doesn’t happen particularly we get stressed before a big events which are going to affect our sleep don’t make that an additional stressor. You can handle in the short run similar loss asleep and still perform. The other thing that I the theme that I got from all that reading until three o’clock in the morning that I found really addressing was the fact that at this point, everybody’s aware that they need sleep. It’s the change in the behavior, and how many of us know it and don’t do anything about it. So if you have made the commitment to say you want to improve your sleep, make those graduated changes. Do what was just suggested in this episode of start going to bed 10 minutes early. Start turning devices off soon. Just start making those little changes and see what it does.


Chris Case  1:18:34

That was another episode of Fast Talk. As always, we love your feedback. Email us at or record a voice memo on your phone and send it our way. Subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcasts. Be sure to leave us a rating and review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual. For Dr. Shona Halson, Dr. James Hull, Cameron Cogburn Erica Clevenger, and Trevor Connor, I’m Chris Case. Thanks for listening