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Athlete sleep more affected by lockdown compared to general population – new study finds

A new global study in which Loughborough University was a co-lead, has shown that athlete sleep was heavily impacted during the lockdown period.

Researchers investigated the sleep patterns of 4,000 athlete participants from around the world, discovering that circadian rhythms – the 24-hour cycles that are part of the body's internal clock – were more affected by lockdown compared to those seen in the general population. 

The study also revealed that elite, individual sports and older athletes were more vulnerable to lockdown-induced disruptions, and that female athletes reported lower sleep quality and higher levels of insomnia compared to males, irrespective of lockdown.

Dr Lee Taylor, Reader in Exercise & Environmental Physiology and senior researcher on the project, explained:

“It has been well noted that the pandemic challenged mental health across society. Within some athletes (and the general population), we know that poor sleep is associated with impaired mental health. Therefore, we thought exploring the effect of the pandemic on sleep within athletes was important.

“The differences between sub-groups (e.g. between males and females, or the influence of athlete age) drives home the need to treat athletes as individuals and deliver individualised practice based on modifiable factors, particularly during events like a pandemic.”

The paper, published in leading journal Sport Medicine, also detailed how several modifiable behaviour changes were evident within sleep during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Throughout the project, Loughborough University collaborated with thirty seven centres or institutions, including other IOC research centres (Prof Karim Chamari from Aspetar – Doha, Qatar) and the High Institute of Sport and Physical Education, Ksar-Saïd at Manouba University, Tunisia (Dr Mohamed Romdhani).

Dr Romdhani commented:

“Despite the challenging backdrop of the pandemic, it was pleasing to complete the largest ever survey on sleep in athletes.

“Collegiately and collaboration was central to this work, so having this project ongoing during the pandemic brought the researchers together during a difficult time.

“Given many of the elite athletes within this research were preparing for the rearranged Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, it was concerning (given the role sleep plays in athletic training and recovery) elite athletes appear more vulnerable than other categories of athletes (and the general population) to lockdown-induced sleep disruptions.”

Prof Chamari added:

“With borders closing during the global lockdown it was refreshing to be working with colleagues from across the globe across ten survey languages. The data provide several modifiable factors that practitioners and clinicians can target to favourably influence sleep within athletes, during similar scenarios in the future.”

The study can be viewed in full by visiting HERE, and Dr Lee Taylor (School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences) can also be found on Twitter – @DrLeeTaylor.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/261

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022, and 10th in both the Guardian University League Table 2022 and the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.