Athlete sleep impacted during COVID-19 lockdown

A Monash University study into the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and mandatory quarantine on athletes found many benefited from improved sleep patterns and mental health, while an increase in screen time and reduced exposure to outdoor light increased depression and anxiety.

The findings are timely, as many professional athletes are required to isolate before international sports events, such as the Australian Open, impacting their training routines, social engagement and sleep.

The study incorporated about 600 elite and community athletes from across Australia and found athletes were able to follow their natural rhythms and develop more consistent sleep patterns during lockdown, decreasing what is referred to as ‘social jetlag’ and resulting in better mental health outcomes.

However, changes to exercise frequency, duration and lack of team training, an increase in screen time and a decrease in exposure to outdoor light were associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

The findings have been published in the journal SLEEP.

Person sleeping with runners on their feet

Social jetlag is the mismatch in sleep timings between work days and free days, which makes it hard for our body clocks to adjust. For example, someone who sleeps and wakes early during the week for work, and goes to bed late sleeps in at the weekend, would have a high 'social jetlag', which has been associated with negative health outcomes.

The study, led by research fellow Dr Elise Facer-Childs from the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, in partnership with the St Kilda Football Club, provides evidence to support the notion that sleep behaviours are modifiable and highlights the need for individual differences to be considered when managing athlete sleep, recovery and mental health.

“Sleep deprivation and sleep disturbance result in decreased performance, impaired recovery and increased injury risk. Individual differences in sleep and circadian biology should be considered in health and training programs for athletes, especially for ‘night owls’ who may be more vulnerable to negative consequences,” Dr Facer-Childs said.

Sufficient sleep in all dimensions (quantity, quality and timing) is important for athletes to maintain good mental health, maximise athletic performance and avoid overtraining, which can cause premature fatigue, decline in performance, emotional instability and decreased motivation.  Whilst undertraining is associated with increased injury risk and mood disturbances through lack of engagement .

Mental health and sleep have been identified as critical components to consider in athlete management and rehabilitation, and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that sleep disturbance and mental health concerns are closely intertwined in athlete populations.

“It is important for all athletes and teams to find the right balance between intensity, volume and frequency of training as well as develop strategies to manage physical recovery and psychological health,” Dr Facer-Childs said.

“As lockdowns continue to be reinstated around the world and athletes are required to isolate following international travel (such as the Australian Open tennis players), messaging should focus on increasing early outdoor daylight and decreasing time on screens before bed, which would likely help athletes fall asleep quicker, wake earlier and reduce social jetlag. An emphasis should also be made to increase social engagement and motivation for those athletes that are in isolated training to improve mental health outcomes.”

“Together with major industry partner, St Kilda Football Club, we have established the Monash University Sleep and Performance Program that aims to develop novel tools that can provide on-going education and interventions designed to improve sleep, recovery and performance for athletes and sports organisations.”

This research was funded through a Science Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF) Ross Metcalf STEM+ Business Fellowship administered by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Read the full paper in SLEEP titled: Sleep and mental health in athletes during COVID-19 lockdown.
DOI: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa261

Learn more about our Sleep and Circadian Rhythms Research Program.