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Athlete sleep more affected by lockdown compared to general population – new study finds

A new global study in which Loughborough University was a co-lead, has shown that athlete sleep was heavily impacted during the lockdown period.

Researchers investigated the sleep patterns of 4,000 athlete participants from around the world, discovering that circadian rhythms – the 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock – were more affected by lockdown compared to those seen in the general population.

The study also revealed that elite, individual sports and older athletes were more vulnerable to lockdown-induced disruptions, and that female athletes reported lower sleep quality and higher levels of insomnia compared to males, irrespective of lockdown.

Dr Lee Taylor, Reader in Exercise and Environmental Physiology and senior researcher on the project, explained:

“It has been well noted that the pandemic challenged mental health across society. Within some athletes (and the general population), we know that poor sleep is associated with impaired mental health. Therefore, we thought exploring the effect of the pandemic on sleep within athletes was important.

“The differences between sub-groups (e.g. between males and females, or the influence of athlete age) drives home the need to treat athletes as individuals and deliver individualised practice based on modifiable factors, particularly during events like a pandemic.”

The paper, published in leading journal Sport Medicine, also detailed how several modifiable behaviour changes were evident within sleep during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Throughout the project, Loughborough University collaborated with thirty seven centres or institutions, including other IOC research centres (Prof Karim Chamari from Aspetar – Doha, Qatar) and the High Institute of Sport and Physical Education, Ksar-Saïd at Manouba University, Tunisia (Dr Mohamed Romdhani).

Dr Romdhani commented:

“Despite the challenging backdrop of the pandemic, it was pleasing to complete the largest ever survey on sleep in athletes.

“Collegiately and collaboration was central to this work, so having this project ongoing during the pandemic brought the researchers together during a difficult time.

“Given many of the elite athletes within this research were preparing for the rearranged Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, it was concerning (given the role sleep plays in athletic training and recovery) elite athletes appear more vulnerable than other categories of athletes (and the general population) to lockdown-induced sleep disruptions.”

Prof Chamari added:

“With borders closing during the global lockdown it was refreshing to be working with colleagues from across the globe across ten survey languages. The data provide several modifiable factors that practitioners and clinicians can target to favourably influence sleep within athletes, during similar scenarios in the future.”