Sonia O’Sullivan: How better sleep can give athletes a crucial edge

The new year is a good time to review all habits in the search for a crucial extra edge

Sean Tobin: the Irish athlete is taking part this year in the annual Falls Creek altitude training camp, set in the mountains about a five-hour drive northeast of Melbourne. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Everyone has their own thoughts on the new year. For most it’s the chance to start anew, try something new, or just reflect on the year that’s gone before, then look ahead to new challenges, new goals, new targets. And nowhere is this more prevalent than in an athlete’s mind.

There’s always plenty to learn from the year gone by. There will be inspiration from success achieved, seeing how others have raised their game and reached new heights, backed up by lots of hard work, determination, commitment and belief.

It’s also the time when new diaries get started and fixtures are released, and with that plans can be laid out, and a good training plan to get you there. It’s not all about the training either, but the little extras which all add up to give that added edge to what is already being done; just a few more stones overturned to add to your armour, to help boost the confidence and result in even better achievements.

There are many boxes that can be ticked as an athlete; how far you run each week? How fast you run? How much more can be added, the work in the gym, the prehab and strength work, visualisation and mental strength, nutrition, rest and recovery?


The list goes on, and there are always new ideas, new ways of doing things and sometimes just new ways of interpreting what can be taken for granted and part of normal day to day life, including things like sleep and rest.

Once again I started the new year back at the Village Bike Cafe, between sessions at the annual Falls Creek altitude training camp, set in the mountains about a five-hour drive northeast of Melbourne.

For over 50 years now athletes have been coming from all over Australia, in ever increasing droves, all ages from teenagers to retired athletes, triathletes and fun runners.

There is no greater place to find motivation and inspiration to kick-start the year, working on the health and fitness, quickly leaving behind the Christmas and New Year indulgences. This has become an annual trip now, and you might think after 20 years since first trekking up the mountain, 1600m above sea level to the rarefied air, it would get old, but it continues to give back and inspire.

In recent years a few Irish athletes have come to see what it’s all about and if this is a way to help breakthrough and step up to the next level. The start of 2019 is no different, and it’s the turn of Seán Tobin, the Clonmel AC athlete who last year returned from a four-year athletics scholarship in the US at Mississippi State University.

Controlled environment

In recent months Seán has been training with the Dublin Track Club, a group training set-up that takes its inspiration from the Melbourne Track club. The idea being if you train in a group in a good training environment there’s a very good chance that you will get fitter and stronger and race better.

Seán came here fresh off a 10th place at the European Cross country Championships in the Netherlands last month, where he was surrounded by athletes with much faster track times, and can take some confidence from this as he chases times this year, and ultimately chasing Olympic qualification.

First up comes a stab at the European Indoors in Glasgow and a possible step up to the World Cross Country Championships, set for Aarhus, Denmark on March 30th.

In recent years many Europeans have shied away from the World Cross Country as a step too far, trying to keep up with the dominant African runners.

I believe it is a true test of character and strength to line up against the best runners in the world across a range of distances and step outside the comfort and controlled environment of an early season track race to see how you measure up, before turning the focus to the European track season. Especially as 2019 will run later and longer this year with the World Championships seeming such a long way off at the tail end of September in Doha, Qatar.

It’s not all about hard work and pushing yourself to the limit but also recognising the need to rest and recover between training sessions, to absorb the training over time.

It’s not easy either to travel across the world alone and join an already established training group – being the new kid on the block, trying to work out where you fit in, not ruffle too many feathers. One week in and it’s easier to relax, not feel like you have to ask questions every day, and for Seán this means he can take time out to relax and not always feel you need to be seen for fear of being left behind.

This place hasn’t changed much in 20 years, probably not changed much since the early days when Ron Clarke first came up here before the Mexico Olympics in the 60s. Just now we talk more about the ‘extra one percentages’, the gym, the massage, the drills and the recovery between sessions.

I was never one for sleeping in the day or thinking too much about sleep at night and how important this is for recovery. I might lie down and read a book or do a crossword puzzle.

Positive insight

Only this week I discovered a book on sleep written by an elite sports sleep coach Nick Littlehales, the author and creator of the R90 technique. This is not anything new, but it’s new to me, and gives a positive insight to understanding sleep and how to manage nighttime sleep and controlled recovery periods throughout the day.

It’s not just the sleeping but the pre- and post-sleep routines, so we are ready to sleep, and not still wound up as we turn the lights out and lie awake hoping for sleep. No more counting hours of sleep each night either, but the number of 90 minute sleep cycles we can fit in each night, ideally waking up at the end of a 90 minute cycle.

This means if you wake up at 3 or 4am you don’t automatically stress about getting back to sleep to ensure a full night’s sleep but count up the number of 90 minute cycles you can fit in as you quickly drift back to sleep. It’s also an exercise used since the late 90s by Manchester United, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Liverpool FC, Team Sky cycling team to name a few.

The main message is the amount of sleep you get throughout the week rather than each night, and it certainly works for me. A bit like the balance of nutrition throughout the week rather than each day or meal.

This mental and physical recovery of sleep is nothing new, but understanding the value of recharging the body and mind through controlled recovery periods of sleep maybe that new addition to a mindset in 2019 that helps improve your performance, physically and mentally.