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Laps and naps as Aussie swimmers race at night

Grant Irvine
Grant Irvine races at night at the AIS.

18 Sep 2015


Australia’s swimmers need not be alarmed by late-night finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics - their preparation for the Games has begun early.

The Australian Dolphins spent a week at the AIS in Canberra training late into the night, using the expertise of the Institute’s sport science branch to monitor athleter adaptation.

While swimmers are renowned for early starts, finals in Rio won’t begin until 10pm and so athletes may not get to bed until the early hours of the morning.

AIS Senior physiologist Dr Shona Halson has been researching the sleep patterns of elite athletes for more than four years and has been advising Australian swimmers on recovery strategies for the unusual competition times in Rio.

The AIS has collected data from more than 5000 nights of sleep, using athletes from varied sports such as the NRL, AFL, Super Rugby and the Olympics.

“Surprisingly there was almost no literature on the sleep of athletes, so we’ve  been investigating how athletes sleep since before London 2012,” Dr Halson said. “We’re getting a really good picture now of what some of the issues may be with our athletes and their sleep patterns.

“What we’re trying to do is help athletes sleep without using medications, looking at natural strategies around routines and habits. We’ve done a range of research in things like nutrition and  neurofeedback – or brain training.

“We’ve collaborated with Central Queensland University and we don’t want to give away too much information. We’re mimicking some research that’s been done in patients with insomnia, trying to do something very similar with our athletes. The idea is to look at how we can train the brain and help people switch off.”

The Australian swimmers spent the week readjusting their body-clocks, training late into the night and having dinner after midnight. Each swimmer was individually monitored using a specialised watch, which tracked the length and quality of their sleep.

“It’s a watch with an accelerometer in it which detects movement,” Dr Halson said. “We can tell what  time they’re going to bed, what time they’re waking up, how long it takes them to fall asleep as well as the quality of sleep.”

“We’re also getting the athletes to fill out an athlete management system, part of an AIS initiative that measures how they’re feeling.”

“My role is to look at those results, understand how the athletes respond to the different timings and whether we need to make any adaptations for individual athletes. The camp also has a strong education focus, talking about relaxation strategies.”

The Australian team collected seven gold medals at the recent world championships in Russia, second only to the US. Swimming Australia isn’t resting on those laurels.

Dr Halson said sleep was the most important recovery strategy and credited Swimming Australia for realising the importance.

“This is a really important camp in terms of preparing for Rio. We don’t know how swimmers are going to cope with the different timings. So 11 months out from Rio, this gives the athletes experience and confidence about what it will be like to try to race fast at those unusual times. I think it’s a great step from Swimming Australia.”

Read more about the AIS Recovery Centre

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