How Sleep and Nutrition Contribute to Olympic-Level Fitness

All eyes are focused on Tokyo Olympic Village and the world’s finest athletic superstars. Still officially called the “Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games,” the summer Olympics run through August 8, 2021. As fans admire the skills and fortitude of these amazing athletes, many ask: “How do they do it?” The obvious answer is “training.” But, what does that involve?

Training is more than just a good coach, determination and long hours of hard work. The excessive activity athletes engage in involves commitment to rigid training routines and good nutrition and sleep habits. This, I believe, starts with a positive attitude, a passion for their sport, and an overall commitment to health and fitness.

It doesn’t matter if it’s gymnastics, swimming, track and field, boxing, cycling, karate, volleyball, rock climbing or any other sport. Olympic-level athletes must maintain a stringent sleep schedule – they can’t achieve a high level of performance without consistently sleeping 8 to 10 hours per night. We need restful, restorative sleep for muscle recovery, emotional balance, mental clarity and overall health.

Simone Biles’ on the Importance of Sleep

World-renowned gymnast Simone Biles says the most important thing for her, in addition to good eating habits, is good sleep. Saying she “loves sleep,” Simone makes her bedroom both “glam” and comfy. She says she needs 8 hours of sleep a night and is in bed by 10:30. Her nightly routine is a shower, brushing her teeth, checking Instagram and Twitter (although I recommend staying away from electronics and social media at least an hour before bedtime), and walking her dog. Simone says she gets up at 6:45 a.m. and spends 6 hours a day training, which takes a tremendous toll on the body. Exhausted from such a rigorous workout, Simone says that sleep always helps.

Good sleep contributes to optimal performance. It:

  • Supports brain functions.  
  • Removes toxins from the body.
  • Supports a strong metabolism and immune system.
  • Reduces the risk of disorders like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and obesity.
  • Reduces anxiety and irritability.
  • Regulates hormones.
  • Is essential to muscle recovery and repair.

Stage 3 is the deep sleep and restorative phase of sleep, which many sleep experts consider to be the most physiologically important phase. During Phase 3, our bodies release human growth hormone (HGH), which is vital to cellular renewal, and tissue is repaired. It’s when we, especially physically active people and children, experience the most bone and muscle growth. It’s also the phase in which the immune system is fortified, which is critical with the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting all populations, including Olympic athletes. When we experience proper sleep, we spend the most time in deep sleep during the first half of the night.

Power naps of 20 to 30 minutes may also be part of some athletes’ routines. More sleep means better muscle recovery.

Prepare Your Sleep Environment

Ensuring your sleep environment is conducive to sleep is essential. Control the temperature of the room; it should be between 68 and 72 degrees. Dim the lighting. Control or cancel noise with a sound machine or app. I also recommend a breathable mattress, sheets, and blanket or comforter that wicks away moisture, and airy, buoyant, breathable pillows that are made of natural materials. I like the Talalay method of processing 100% latex pillows. It results in pillows that promote temperature regulation, as well as maintain consistent density and recovery.

Eat Well for Health, Fitness and Recovery

Nutrition is a big part of fitness and athletic prowess. Nutritional needs may vary somewhat from athlete to athlete, but many eat smaller meals more often, perhaps every 3 to 4 hours to maintain consistent energy levels, and within 90 minutes of working out. People usually aren’t hungry during the 30 to 60 minutes after working out but they crave water. Staying hydrated throughout the day helps prepare the body for intense activity.

Hydration is key in all sports. Athletes must avoid dehydration as it affects reaction time and cognitive performance. Experts say to consume a minimum of half your body weight in ounces of water each day to stay hydrated. If you’re exercising intensely or for long durations, also consider a sports drink to replenish electrolytes.

Adam Ondra’s Tips on Nutrition

Czech rock climber Adam Ondra says part of climbing successfully is also eating well and helps with recovery. The better you recover, the better you train, and the better you train, the better athlete you are. Animal protein is important because of the essential amino acids, and Ondra says he usually eats meat only once a day. He supplements his diet with protein powder and power bars. Carbohydrates are critical because they refuel the energy spent while training.

A typical lunch Ondra prepares – black rice with carrots, tofu, squash and spices, sauteed in olive oil – has both protein and carbs. Spices are essential because they aid digestion. I recommend spices like curry, cumin, coriander and fennel seeds – which are also delicious and flavorful.

Some top athletes have their own nutritionist, and their diet is structured specifically to their athletic field. Slovenian cyclist Tadej Pogacar, who requires lean muscle and long-term energy for the 234-kilometer Olympic race course, may have a diet that is based on his weight as well as other factors. But carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, potatoes and oat porridge, fruits and vegetables to provide micronutrients to help prevent illnesses, and some fats are likely staples. Athletes may complement their diet with energy bars and isotonic drinks. At certain times, cyclists eat up to 7,500 calories a day as they try to maintain their weight throughout a race.

Olympic boxer Naomi Graham, who ranks No. 1 among America’s boxing middleweights and eighth in the world, may take a slightly different nutritional approach to reach her optimal fitness level. In addition to mental clarity, boxing requires powerful bursts of energy, speed and muscle strength, so adequate protein is extremely important.

How to Sleep Like an Olympic Athlete

To sleep like an Olympic superstar, ensure your sleep routine and environment are conducive to uninterrupted sleep of 8 to 10 hours per night:

  • Take a relaxing walk or read before bed.
  • Shower or bathe before bed.
  • Retire before 11 p.m. for optimal hormone release.
  • Dim the lighting.
  • Ensure noise control or cancellation with a sound machine or app.
  • Control the temperature of the room so it is between 68 and 72 degrees.
  • Have a breathable mattress, sheets, and blanket or comforter that wick away moisture.
  • Use pillows that are made of natural materials and are airy, buoyant, and breathable.
  • Decrease screen time – avoid computers and TV an hour before bed to limit exposure to electromagnetic waves.

Proper sleep and nutrition are essential, not only to athletic performance, but also to overall health and happiness. Committing to 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night, a healthy diet and lots of water can result in both a satisfying workout and a fulfilling, productive life.

Authored by Ingrid Prueher, Holistic Sleep Coach