Olympic teams often have coaches, trainers and physical therapists on their staff. But for the Tokyo Games, the U.S. Weightlifting team has added another role to help its athletes perform at the top of their game – a sleep performance director.
Dr. Jeffrey Durmer is Chief Medical Officer of Nox Health and a neuroscientist who specializes in sleep. Since 2013, he has been helping athletes in various sports as a sleep consultant to optimize their performance through sleep programs. This year, he is one of the first staff members on an Olympic team that solely specializes in sleep.
"All it is, is sleep doping," Durmer told ABC News. This is done by "using natural physiology and science to improve the team's abilities. I give them huge credit for thinking outside the box and finding new ways to implement an advantage which is completely legal."
Durmer said the pressure of competition and jetlag can often throw off an athlete’s sleep schedule during the Olympic Games. He also said many athletes are so focused on training as hard as they possibly can that they forget to make sleep a priority.
“I think it has changed a lot of -- the perception about sleep, where they all kind of looked at sleep, as, you know, I'll sleep when I'm dead. I can work out three times a day,” Durmer said. “What we found is that this concept of overtraining syndrome is really not about overtraining, it's about under-recovery. So if you're not recovering enough, your training itself could become a detriment.”
Durmer said the most important part of his job as a sleep performance director is educating the athletes about the benefits and necessity of sleep as a group. Then, he studies each athlete to determine what sleep patterns will give them the best competitive advantage.
“If you can make if you can actually start to build that into your training routine, build your sleep routine, that actually will support all kinds of resilience, mental resilience, physical resilience, immune resilience, when you go to another country … So you can actually perform at your highest level,” Durmer said.
Due to the pandemic, athletes are not able to stay in Tokyo for as long as they normally would to adjust to the time change prior to competition. To help with jetlag, the U.S. Weightlifting has been training in Hawaii prior to the games, which will make the time adjustment much easier once they are able to enter Tokyo for competition.
Olympians are not the only ones who perform at their peak with a healthy amount of sleep, every person can benefit from a healthy sleep schedule. Durmer shared his top tips for gold medal-worthy sleep:
1. Simplify your routine:Create a bedtime for yourself that offers you at least 8 hours to sleep and set an alarm to remind you. Slow down 30-45 minutes before sleep by practicing a simple calming behavior such as meditation, reading, stretching or anything that helps you "settle.”
2. Use your own biology to your advantage:A cool core improves sleep. Lower your body temperature before sleep by taking a warm shower or bath, then rapidly cooling your body in the air. Activate your parasympathetic nervous system to fall asleep faster using meditative "belly" breathing exercises before sleep.
3. Eliminate before you add:Reduce the amount of technology, devices and non-sleep-related objects in your sleep space. View your sleep space as a sleep sanctuary where nothing's allowed in that's not for sleep. The same thing goes for sleep aids or supplements. Don't add anything until you've eliminated light, noise, heat, bed discomfort or objects that stimulate wakefulness.
4. Include sleep as part of your training:Sleep is the basis for your performance the next day, whether you're a weightlifter, student or CEO. Think about your sleep as the beginning of tomorrow, rather than the end of today.
5. Be mindful of your own sleep habits and patterns:Sleep is not a monolith. The duration and timing of your sleep are inter-dependent variables that you can control. Sleep quality may not be in your control all the time. If giving yourself enough time to sleep with a regular routine does not help you feel rested, you should seek some professional advice from a sleep physician.