Professional Football and Chronobiology
In a recent Podcast, HMN24 Co-Founder Phil Learney was asked about the implications of sleep-wake disruption on professional footballers and what an adjusted schedule may look like and how HMN24 products would be integrated into it.
Firstly, we need to ascertain some of the fundamentals a player needs to consistently perform at a high level.
Beyond the basic nutritional requirements and the foundations of skill and fitness that should already exist, we need to strip this back to basics. Basics that are often forgotten or disregarded.
They require a consistent or well-managed sleep and wake cycle.
The foundations of every mammal’s sleep and wake cycle are the sun rising and setting. This ‘sets’ their biological functions into a predictable loop. Each cell works like the components of a watch complication, all moving in unison but reaching different functions at different times.
Humans don’t follow this pattern. We initiate our days with sirens (alarm clocks), usually determined by work schedules and end it when we turn our attention from TVs or put our phones down. We support this by using and abusing both stimulants and depressants and creating our own lighting environments.
We also shift our rhythms regularly through travel and social commitments, creating a myriad of heart, metabolic and mental health issues along with an increased cancer risk.
Four to six high-quality sleep cycles per night.
A sleep cycle is 90 minutes. This enables our body to do all the jobs it needs to do to recover. Create a backlog, and we start to physically or mentally become compromised until the systems that support our health begin to break.
We don’t even really need science to confirm this; it does; most of us know this just from experience.
We need to have a balanced autonomic nervous system.
Akin to sleep, we have a wake cycle driven by the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and a sleep/recovery cycle driven by the parasympathetic system (rest and digest). Stimulants and depressants, comprising of everything we consume, social media, news and the usual culprits of caffeine and alcohol, influence this.
Just like a car, we can’t redline it all the time.
For a professional footballer, walking out to 50,000 people in a floodlit stadium at 8 pm; although our body is closer to being asleep biologically, it’s enough to shift us back into a sympathetic state, which becomes problematic if not managed. It's no different to waking up in the middle of the night thinking someone’s breaking in (adrenaline and cortisol) and turning all the lights on (serotonin).
Chemically, our body shifts us out of the state we’re meant to be in.
Give a player a bunch of caffeine pre-game, and you’ve just further jacked that response up, in some cases also anxiety, messed their sleep biology up (due to the metabolism of caffeine) and, therefore, recovery. Add in post-game duties and a need to wind down. It’s no wonder players get into sleep debt and rely on sleeping pills.
If I asked any manager in the Premier League if he was ok with anyone increasing the player's risk of injury, I am almost positive his answer would be no.
The interaction between insufficient sleep and time of day on performance was established long ago. This is all a part of our biological rhythms that control cycles like sleep, wakefulness, and body temperature and play a significant role in our health.
A slight shift in these rhythms disrupts all of these patterns, changing our metabolism of energy and the way we mentally and physically perform and increasing our risk of compromising health conditions.
In the world of professional football, this becomes even more significant. The decline in performance becomes more noticeable, and the risk of injury increases, adding to the cumulative demands imposed on athletes in many sports. This is an issue that we should be addressing.
Our problem is that no one, or significantly few professional organisations, has ever paid this science much attention, and we are now seeing the impact of this ignorance.
In the US, most teams employ their own experts to manage sleep and travel schedules. The East to West shift is significant enough that it can influence outcomes. Studies have shown us this.
As one of the most commercially viable sports on the planet, professional football (soccer) the investment into this particular facet is minimal. As there is no timezone shift seen, it’s largely disregarded.
But all is not as it seems.
Professional football has a huge variance in kick-off times. Often anywhere from 12 pm and 8 pm. Mainly dictated by media schedules.
This is like getting someone to start work at a different time every day and expecting the same performance.
Peaking performance with such variance is challenging and needs lots of planning to get the most out of our players. Also, the schedules often conflict with regulated sleep and wake patterns and, thus, chronodisruption.
The training loads also experienced by players during weekly micro-cycles are influenced by the phase of the season, player position, frequency of games, player starting status, player-specific training goals and club coaching philosophy.
So, each of these comes with differing demands. Several areas have been researched and put into play; on a nutritional level, carbohydrate periodisation is already in place in many clubs to deal with these cyclical and varying demands.
But what about chronobiology and managing the player’s sleep and wake cycles?
Only recently have we seen the Wolverhampton team using daylight glasses and Erling Harland reaching into his own pocket to supply his teammates with glasses that manage blue light exposure.
Merely scratching the surface of what can be done.
Very little has been done to manage these demands on a biological level, but slowly, things are edging their way forward. Often led by players rather than clubs.
This isn’t new science by any means. It seems to be an area we’ve sat in ignorant bliss about.
We know that caffeine needs to be managed and not liberally used.
We know that depressants and stimulants largely damage sleep quality.
We know that sleep latency, duration, consistency and architecture are all critically essential but have hinged on duration as a ‘will do’ metric.
As Deli Ali suggested recently on the Gary Neville Podcast, there is a significant dependency on sleeping pills within the premier league and several other issues that also point back to chronodisruption.
“I got addicted to sleeping tablets, and it's probably a problem that, you know, not only I have, I think it’s something that’s going around more than people realise in the game of football.”
Remember that sedatives and depressants for sleep are usually preceded by either the overuse or abuse of stimulants and the resultant disruption of someone’s biological clock.
Most of it usually occurs together.
So why is this not being addressed?
Is it a matter of the age-old struggle of previous generations unwilling to accept what is new in favour of what has historically worked for them?
Is this another matter of abusing substances that are permitted to keep players functioning?
Is there a willingness to break players, given that the pools of talent in football are so deep?
Failure to move with science and technology usually means we get left behind.
We also know from experience that the early adopters of strength and conditioning coaches and club nutritionists are leaps ahead now of where they were as little as ten years ago.
So what’s the solution?
It’s complex, but schedules can be adjusted to suit, and strategies can be implemented to meet those essential markers.
They require a consistent or well-managed sleep and wake cycle.
Four to six high-quality sleep cycles per night.
They need to have a balanced autonomic nervous system.
Using probably the most extreme example.
The 8pm Kick off.
At this point, assuming a player has gotten up at 7 am, which is a fairly usual schedule, remained awake and exposed their optic nerve to light when they woke up.
Between 1-3 pm, their body shifts from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state, what the layperson terms as the ‘slump’; this is normal biology.
Nb. If the player has slept in on game day, that shifts their whole biological function. It's no a solution but a part of the long term problem.
Sleep urge will have one of its two peaks here; alertness will start its path downwards to prepare for sleep, as will cortisol. Sleep pressure will have built up to a point that the player is closer to sleep than being awake.
At this point this is when caffeine resolves all these problems, but at the same time, it compromises sleep quality and, therefore, recovery increasing injury risk.
At the point of kick off the body is getting ready to lower serotonin and increase melatonin (Dim Light Melatonin Onset). This all gets flipped.
Serotonin goes up.
Adrenaline, cortisol, and stress hormones shift the body into a fight-or-flight mechanism. If caffeine is added, that gets elevated, meaning that the player will wake up the following day with caffeine undoubtedly still circulating in their system.
Cue the problematic and liberal prescription of sedatives (sleeping pills) previously noted. Players can't relax or wind down and often suffer from sleep anxiety.
Post-game, everything has to normalise. Body temperature, heart rate, and the body need to return to a calm and parasympathetic state. The time is likely 10:30 pm or later at this stage.
Post match duties added in, travel time etc. If a player manages to sleep before midnight, they’re doing well. That sleep quality is most likely going to be poor. For those who had an alcoholic drink post-game, that sleep quality will be wrecked.
So what would a better schedule look like?
7 am wake, light exposure through sunlight or using a SAD light. Movement and avoidance of caffeine and tech exposure for 60-90 mins. Electrolytes (HYDRATE) are taken here to ensure cells are fully hydrated.
8-8:30 am Caffeine (RISE) taken in this window which is non-disruptive of sleep or the cortisol awakening response.
Club duties and whatever is scheduled for game day.
Noon, run two 90-minute sleep cycles in a pitch-black environment; this offsets the ‘slump’ and bags two sleep cycles, meaning that only 5-6 hours of sleep is now needed. The player can now take up until 1-2 am to wind down and prepare for sleep, implementing solid sleep hygiene and reducing sleep anxiety.
At 3 pm, the player wakes up and repeats the light exposure, creating a bi-phasic sleep-wake pattern.
This has now offset the increase in melatonin by three hours and prolonged the sympathetic state.
By using nootropics (FLOW) pre-game alertness can also be prolonged and enhanced without compromising sleep quality or the ability to sleep post game.
Post-game. Cold showers to re-regulate body temperature and reduce inflammation. This preps the player better for sleep, and the reduction in inflammation increases sleep consistency.
Recovery modalities implemented.
Use Blue light blocking glasses (Like Harland bought) to encourage the reduction in serotonin and increase in melatonin. Some parasympathetic activities such as breathwork or meditation and light soft tissue work promote that state and should be used at this stage. Calm environments and avoidance of tech, etc.
Normal sleep hygiene.
Pre-bed using a formula such as PRE-SLEEP will support sleep quality and improve latency, consistency and architecture.
For professional athletes, this should be a pretty standard schedule, a lot more could be done to ensure better outcomes tailoring the schedule to suit differing kick-off times and ensure peaks occur at the right time for individuals and the desired outcome.