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Quality rest is critical for everyone, but arguably more so for athletes, whose sleep health directly impacts their performance. Just ask Allison Maurer, sports nutritionist at the University of Tennessee’s athletics department and the brains behind her football program’s truly innovative approach to sleep and college football.

“This is on a whole other level,” she told Van Winkle’s. “A lot of teams probably have brought people into talk about sleep. But we’re bringing in sleep coaches that are actually coming on-site to track progress, answer questions, go to the dorms and check on the guys.”

In a first-of-its-kind experiment, the Tennessee Volunteers enlisted the help of Rise Science, a sleep monitoring company, to track 34 players’ sleep patterns during summer training. By using an app that connects to the player’s mattresses, Maurer can monitor the players’ heart rates, respiration and movement, allowing her to better assist the players with their readiness and recovery. The players also all receive sleep masks, which Maurer says they love so much they even wear them on their heads during the day.

With the support of head coach Butch Jones, Maurer is continuing her sleep initiative into the fall. We chatted with Maurer about what it’s like helping a team of football players get their shuteye — and why it’s so important in the first place.

How are the players responding to your sleep coaching initiative?

It’s actually been really great, and it’s really changed the culture. In the past, guys would show up in the morning and brag about not sleeping or pulling all-nighters or only getting two hours of sleep. That’s the “bro code” for “you’re awesome.” And now it’s like, “You’re an idiot! Why didn’t you sleep?” It’s become a competition of, really, who can sleep the most.

How much sleep are you telling them to get?

We shoot for nine, but we know that’s probably not realistic. We have a few guys that are engineering majors, and some of them might’ve been getting four hours of sleep last semester.

Now the goal might be six for them. Is that ideal? No. But is it better than four? Absolutely.

What do you do with the players’ sleep data?

With each player who’s being monitored, I ask them a lot of questions, such as “Why did you only get six hours of sleep?” And I’m trying to really educate them on what that means from a readiness to perform standpoint.

So if a player got seven hours of sleep, and their heart rate was low, and their heart rate variability (HRV) was high, I can say, “Look, you didn’t get the sleep that you needed, but you recovered pretty well during that timeframe that you slept. Let’s make sure that you are getting to bed earlier so that you can stay along this path.” The players are really starting to put two and two together.

Speaking as a dietician, why is it so important for football players to have healthy sleep?

When they’re sleeping well, they’re able to utilize the nutrients they’re consuming. They’re able to use carbohydrates more efficiently, their reaction time is better, their alertness, concentration, focus, all those things are so much more apparent when they are awake and rested.

I just think in general, too, their eating habits are better. When they’re more rested, they’re thinking more clearly about the things they need to put in their bodies. So just the ability to make good choices on so many levels: food, social, academic, football.

It all just starts falling into place with better sleep.

Have you seen a player’s performance improve once he also started improving his sleep?

Yup, absolutely. We had one individual who just wasn’t gaining weight, and I knew he was only sleeping about two to three hours a night. Then we started football training camp, and he was getting about seven hours of sleep per night, and he was eating more frequently and consistently and he put on eight pounds.

Now he’s back in the dorms, and we’re trying to figure out the best way to make sure he continues sleeping that well because he saw how much it benefitted him.

What's the relationship between the players' diets and their sleeping habits?

You don’t want to go to bed on a full stomach. You’re still kind of in that food coma-type mindset, and it just disturbs your natural circadian rhythm. You’re not falling into deep sleep as efficiently. And a lot of times, if they’re eating high sugar foods, fast food or junk like that, I mean, that’s seriously going to affect their ability to fall asleep.

We have them drink cherry juice before bed, because that helps with melatonin. Oatmeal is also a good food to have about an hour before bed because it's warm and calm. Same with warm milk and bananas.That's kind of my goal this fall. We did such a great job during training camp with all the sleep stuff. Now I'm taking the food component to the next level. 

On the field, how can you tell when a football player is sleep-deprived?

I’m trying to really learn this myself, since we’re really new at this. I think, more than anything, you can sense the mood of the team, like you can see when they go out on the field how rested they are or how rested they are not…

Things have to happen collectively as a team to create a really great structure and foundation, versus just one of the quarterbacks or one of the linemen. That’s where the next component of the education comes in.

Will we see more programs making healthy sleep a priority for their athletes?

Yeah. It’s so apparent in their alertness and their ability to react. From an injury standpoint alone, you’re going to see less injuries if the players are more rested. A lot of other programs are going to start realizing that and buying into it.

I hope that would be the case, for the safety of all athletes.