Russia-bound journalists, tourists, and Olympians should have taken a cue from Jeremy Abbott. Even before news hit about the hilariously bad living conditions (toxic face wash, anyone?) in Sochi, the 28-year-old American figure skater had already unpacked his 25-pound queen-sized air mattress, ditching his small twin bed (like the one NHL reporter tweeted) at the Olympic Village.
“I did not do well on the twin bed in Vancouver,” Abbott recently revealed to NBCOlympics.com, referring to his ninth-place finish at the 2010 Winter Games. “I toss and turn a lot. For the two and a half weeks I was in Vancouver, I didn’t sleep one full night because I was always afraid that I was going to roll off the bed.”
It's not just about being tired the next day. “Lack of a proper night's rest—the optimal amount your body needs to reset itself is seven to nine hours—affects your memory, performance, and ability to recover from injury,” explains Robert Gotlin, D.O., the director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation in the department of orthopedic surgery at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. [Tweet this fact!]
Skimping on sleep is bad for everyone, not just athletes, but most Olympians only get one shot at medaling on the world's biggest sports stage, so quality shut-eye is extra crucial for them. Unfortunately, it's really easy for these world-class athletes to get distracted and off the sound-slumber track.
“At the Olympics, there are all these things that get in the way of sleep—meetings, media, excitement, travel. So rest sometimes gets the short end of the stick, and then performance suffers,” Gotlin says, adding that when an athlete misses out on zzz's, four things happen.
1. Cortisol rises. The production of this hormone, which is most often affiliated with stress, increases as sleeping time decreases. Too much cortisol can negatively affect memory and lengthen recovery time—definitely not good for athletes who need their bodies to heal fast after training or competing in order to keep going. Plus cortisol makes it harder to mellow out.
2. Human growth hormone (HGH) decreases. Proper sleep helps maintain HGH levels. Too little of this hormone also can adversely affect recovery and impair functioning.
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3. Appetite increases. The hormone leptin, which signals the body when it's full, increases at night so that there's no urge to eat while horizontal. Less dream time lowers leptin levels, in turn boosting hunger. And if an athlete eats more, it can throw off his or her weight and potentially his or her performance.
4. Energy plummets. Glycogen, which fuels the body, is stored during sleep. Cutting back on beauty rest means there's less stocked energy to tap when Olympians need it most, as well as diminished reaction time, coordination, and overall performance.