Becoming an Olympic-caliber athlete takes a calculated approach to training and recovery. And sleep is one of the most important parts of that equation. But don't take our word for it. We spoke to a handful of decorated Olympians to find out how they used sleep to boost their performance.
Optimizing rest, we discovered, requires the usual dose of dedication and sacrifice that defines all top-tier athletes, and comes with its fair share of obstacles (constantly acclimating to new time zones, expecting to be on your A-game as soon as you wake up). But it's essential to staying in peak mental and physical shape. And without learning how to harness sleep, they never would've made their trips to the podium.
Here's how they use sleep to gain an edge — and their advice for how you can do the same.
1. Travis Ganong, alpine ski racer
About: Ganong has been charging snow-covered slopes on the World Cup circuit since 2010 and he made his first Olympic appearance 2014 for the Sochi, games where he scored fifth place in the men’s downhill.
Sleep Schedule: “Midwinter when I’m traveling and during a competition week, I try to get a minimum of eight hours before a competition day. When I go to bed and when I wake up all depends on my schedule for the next day, but when we’re training super early before the sun rises, I go to bed early.
On the Power of the Power Nap: "Naps are very important in the summer for me when I’m putting in big conditioning blocks. We do double sessions all summer usually starting in the gym in the morning, then a big cardio workout in the afternoon. After the morning lift, I try and squeeze in a nap as often as possible. It’s good to shut down after a tough session.”
On the Importance of a Good Night's Rest: “Feeling rested and ready is so important, not just physically but mentally. As a ski racer, we face so many variables, be it wind, fog, snow conditions or deteriorating snow surface, and sleep is a variable that you can control as an athlete. Also, during big competitions there are usually crowds there to support me, but they are also there to party and listen to loud music late into the night. I’ve learned to minimize this problem by always sleeping with earplugs.”
On Achieving Quality Zzzs: “If I’m on my phone looking at a screen just before bed, I have trouble falling asleep so I try to avoid that. Also traveling with an eye mask can help and taking some melatonin before big days to help me find a peaceful sleep. Otherwise I find myself thinking too much about the next day and tossing and turning. These are all things that can become a part of your routine as an athlete that can help you maximize your performance.
When I first arrive in a new country I try and get onto the correct time as soon as possible by forcing myself to stay awake until it’s a reasonable time in that location, regardless of my internal clock.”
2. Phil Dalhausser, beach volleyball player
About: Dalhausser, a two-time Olympian, won Olympic gold at the 2008 Beijing Games, alongside his partner Todd Rogers, and was awarded most outstanding player.
Sleep Schedule: “My sleep is usually all over the place when I’m competing because I’m often overseas and I’m jet lagged. I usually go to bed around 11 p.m. and shoot to sleep until 8 a.m. but that often doesn’t happen. Most of the time I’m up earlier than that. I’ll take a nap if I didn’t sleep well the night before."
On the Importance of a Good Night's Rest: “When I sleep well my mind is sharp and it’s easy to focus. On a bad night’s sleep my brain feels foggy and I have a tough time focusing. Sleep is very important for muscle recovery. I find that if I’m not sleeping well I tend to be a little more sore the next day.”
On his Pre-Bed Routine: “I drink a protein shake before I go to bed and it seems to help me sleep. Also, when I travel I take melatonin the first two or three nights to help reset my internal sleep clock.”
3. Shannon Miller, former gymnast
About: Miller, a member of the 1996 gold-medal-winning Magnificent Seven American Olympic team, won seven Olympic medals over the course of her decorated career.
Sleep Schedule: “During competition and training, I made sure to get at least eight hours of sleep and more whenever possible. I typically went to bed around 9:30 or 10 p.m. and woke up around 7:30 a.m.. I definitely took naps. I pretty much took a nap every day from the time I started intensive training to the time I retired, which was about a decade.
While traveling, it was important to get even more sleep. I was a pro at it. People would find me catching a power nap in all sorts of places on a bus or plane and even in the splits. I learned early on that sleeping was just as important to my training as conditioning, stretching, and skills. I had to give my body and my mind time to recover.”
On the Importance of a Good Night's Rest: “I could definitely feel a difference in my training when I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Without proper sleep, I wasn’t able to think as quickly or clearly, which is critical when you’re flying through the air upside down.
And just like everyone else, lack of sleep makes me a little irritable. When you get a great night’s sleep or even just a really good catnap, you become more productive and energized. A bad night’s sleep or a pattern of a lack of sleep can certainly affect your performance whether it’s in training or at a major competition. You need to be on your game, which means you need to be well rested and have given your body enough time and ability to heal. I feel like good sleep is about more than just one night. You have to have it on a consistent basis to truly reap the benefits.”
On Pre-Competition Jitters: “I typically slept pretty well before a competition. I usually spent the day before doing a double workout, so I was ready to hit the sack. I had a little ritual where I would go through the next day’s competition in my head, event by event, and see myself doing each routine as perfectly as I could. Once I finished, I could say my prayers and fall asleep with no problem. It helped me feel like I squeezed in that last little bit of training.”
4. Chris Creveling, speed skater
About: Creveling won a silver medal in the men’s short track at the 2014 Olympic Games in Russia.
Sleep Schedule: “I usually try to get sleep whenever we have a break in the day. As athletes, our lives tend to be pretty busy so there isn’t much time for resting. When we’re traveling overseas that routine changes drastically.
I’ll go to bed sometime between 10 and 11:30 p.m, and I’ll wake up around 8 or 9 a.m., depending on what our training was the day before. If I had a hard training the day before, which is usually the case, it’s definitely important for me to nap. I’ll nap for 20 to 40 minutes, and that’s enough time for your body to recuperate and it allows your mind to calm as well.”
On the Importance of a Good Night's Rest: “A good night’s sleep is mandatory. No questions about that. But when you’re experiencing jet lag, good sleep sometimes isn’t an option. In that case you have to prorate the best you can and just deal with it. That’s why I enjoy taking short naps so much.
As an athlete you need a little more sleep than the average person. If you take that for granted, then you’re in for a bad experience. While I was a college athlete I learned very quickly that getting enough rest was mandatory.
Without proper sleep, you will most definitely get sick frequently, lose focus and concentration, suffer in performance and just about every aspect of life. I have learned the value of getting enough rest. When I found out that I wasn’t getting nearly enough rest, it was a shock. I had to change all of my sleeping habits and daily routine to incorporate more sleeping into my busy schedule."
On Pre-Competition Jitters: “If there’s a competition the next day I’m always getting to bed earlier than normal. It will generally take me longer to settle down. If you find yourself waking up periodically I would recommend a natural sleep aid like Valerian root, chamomile, or melatonin. This will help you stay asleep and avoid too much tossing and turning.”
5. Kikkan Randall, cross-country skier
About: Alaskan native and four-time Olympian Randall finished sixth place at the 2006 Olympics, then the top result ever by an American cross-country skier. In 2010, she returned to the Olympics and claimed sixth place—an American best—in the team sprint and eighth place in the individual sprint.
Sleep Schedule: “I try to aim for between eight and a half and 10 hours of sleep a night. I’ll go to bed around 10:30 p.m. and wake up between 7 and 8 a.m. Naps are my favorite thing. I try to take a nap almost every day. Those can vary from a half an hour to three or four hours.
I’ll train in the morning, have lunch, take a nap, then go for a second training session. Traveling is always tough, but I try to squeeze in sleep on the plane or in the airport and then stay up until at least 9 p.m., which can sometimes feel really hard, so I can adjust to the time zone.”
On the Importance of a Good Night's Rest: “When I get a good night of sleep, I wake up with really good energy and a positive outlook. It gets me excited to show up at training and I’m able to focus well. If I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I feel it in the morning and little things can start to bug me.
I’ve certainly had good performances when I’ve had a bad night’s sleep and bad performances when I’ve had a good night’s sleep, but if I do a good job with keeping up with good sleep at night and good naps, my training really progresses. If my sleep starts to lag day after day, I’ll notice it affecting my performance.”
On Pre-Competition Jitters: “Going into the Sochi Olympics before the big sprint day, I didn’t sleep soundly because I was thinking about the race. I try to use the tactics I’ve learned, like doing visualization and imagining the performance going really well or taking a hot shower before bed to help me relax.
If I find myself awake or restless in the middle of the night, I try to be patient and think, ‘At least I’m lying down and letting my body rest and recover.’ I try to stay calm. I’ve been trying to experiment with limiting screen time before bed. I haven’t had any conclusive evidence that it works, but it makes a lot of sense to me.”