As the planet goes football crazy for the 2018 World Cup, news has filtered out of the England training camp that the Gulf of Finland’s extended daylight hours are disrupting players’ sleep schedules. It’s a reminder of the sleep’s crucial role in the preparation of all elite athletes - and footballers in particular.
Just 40km from Saint Petersburg, the sleepy beachside town of Repino is a favourite weekend getaway for the city’s well-heeled inhabitants. Since June 12 it has also been home from home for the England football team, who chose it as the base for their 2018 World Cup challenge. Located high in the Gulf of Finland, Repino has one important characteristic: in summer, the sun sets at 11.30pm and rises again at 3am – and even between those two times it is never completely dark. The English Football Association – which takes its players’ sleep seriously – has already installed special mattresses and blackout blinds at the team’s hotel. Yet despite those precautions, the endless daylight has reportedly been taking a toll on the England squad’s sleep patterns.
That is bad news for England, because sleep is a very precious commodity for today’s professional footballer. Sleep’s influence on athletic performance has been known for some time, with one 2011 study – conducted on US college basketball players – linking increased sleep with faster sprints, improved shooting accuracy, quicker reactions and increased physical recovery.
But elite football brings its own set of problems. Research published in 2015 by a Franco-Australian team of scientists described how night matches with late kick-off times, exposure to bright light, congested scheduling and frequent travelling all interfere with footballers’ sleep routines. The study suggested various sleep hygiene strategies – including blue-filtered glasses, meditation and a ban on bedroom clocks – as ways of promoting restorative sleep and minimizing the harmful effects of night matches.
That approach is the stock in trade of Nick Littlehales, an elite sports sleep coach who has worked with Manchester United, Arsenal and Real Madrid, to name but a few. Littlehayes says that his work is all about influencing the habits of players and reducing the effects of our high-tech, 24/7 existence. “It’s about sleeping in cycles,” he told Sky Sports. “You need 35 90-minute sleep cycles in a week. Five a day gives you 7.5 hours. That can be three or four back-to-back and then a nap in the afternoon. You are just aiming for five cycles per day, on average.”
In 2004, Littlehayes got the job of prepping the England team’s sleeping accommodation for Euro 2004 in Portugal. “We looked at the hotel, where the sun came up, so looked at protocols for keeping the sun out, adjusting the air con, pillows, duvets, linen and layers to make the mattresses more comfortable from a postural care point of view,” he said. Fans will remember that England ended up losing to Portugal in the quarter-finals that year. Let’s hope the team’s sleep coach is doing his job even better in Repino this time round!