Team Northern Ireland have turned to a South African innovation to help their athletes get critical performance enhancing sleep.
The importance of sleep in athletic performance has become the focus of attention for sports physicians around the world as individuals and teams look for anything that will give them the advantage over their rivals. Sleep helps the body repair itself so if an athlete is not getting enough sleep, then they will not be able to perform at their peak.
Developed by a South African specialist ophthalmologist, SleepSpec are scientifically engineered glasses with amber tinted lenses which filter out blue light that is known to suppress production of the hormone melatonin which is needed to induce sleep. At night, as the sun sets, the body produces melatonin. When the sun rises, light (including blue light) increases, stopping the production of melatonin. The drop in melatonin causes the body to wake up. The sleep/wake cycle, also known as the circadian rhythm, is responsible for controlling ones’ sleep patterns.
Nowadays, however, artificial light from lights and particularly from electronic devices, means that the brain struggles to distinguish the change from day to night. As a result, melatonin production is suppressed, and our bodies are unable to move effectively into sleep mode.
SleepSpec works by filtering out blue light and allowing the body to produce melatonin naturally, inducing quality sleep and recovery. They can be used to at any time of the day or night and can help the body adapt to new time zones. This reduces the effects of jetlag, which also affects athletic performance.
According to Northern Ireland Team Physiologist, Damian Martin, who has been working with the country’s boxing squad, there is a lot of focus on rest and recovery in terms of delivering better performance. He also notes that they needed a natural, drug-free way of helping the athletes reduce the effect of jetlag.
“My colleague Dr Richard McCann, who provides physiological support to the NI international soccer team, circulated an article to our department which demonstrated how Premier League side Bournemouth FC were using SleepSpec during travel to away games. This, in combination with the published literature, was used to inform our decision to use SleepSpec travel packs to complement the overall travel management programme for the entire Commonwealth Games squad,” explains Martin.
REM sleep provides energy to both the brain and body. If sleep is cut short or disturbed, the body doesn’t have time to repair memory, consolidate memory, and release hormones including melatonin, a powerful anti-oxidant which helps cells get rid of free radicals and other toxins.
According to the American National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation has also been seen to decrease production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use during physical activity. Therefore, less sleep increases the possibility of fatigue, low energy, and poor focus at game time. It may also slow recovery post-game.
Martin says that all athletes and staff were given the glasses to wear. “We received extremely positive feedback from most athletes and support staff, particularly the boxing, swimming and netball teams.”
“SleepSpec helped to restrict light exposure at specific times throughout the travel period at the Commonwealth Games and has helped facilitate the readjustment of our athletes’ internal body clock, minimising disturbance to normal training and reducing the potential impact of travel fatigue and jet lag.”
Locally SleepSpec have been used by the Lions Super Rugby Team for the past three years for both recovery and for management of jet lag when travelling to away games. In fact, the team’s historical win over the Waratah’s in Sydney (20 April 2018) has largely been attributed to careful time management to reduce the debilitating effect of jetlag on the players by keeping Aem in South African time until after the game. SleepSpec was an integral part of this plan which involved sleeping and eating at different times to trick the players’ bodies into believing they were still operating on South African time.
The plan seems to have worked perfectly as the players were able to maintain physical intensity and tempo throughout the game. Team Physician Dr Rob Collins explains that the role of sleep in recovery has also become a focus area over the past few seasons. “We monitor sleep of every athlete every day – amount and quality of sleep is individual, so we look for changes from the athlete’s norm as a sign to prevent injuries. Many of our athletes have definitely found that SleepSpecs have assisted them in sleeping better.”