clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Illustrations by Brittany Falussy

Episode 5: Olympic-Sized Sleep Problems

How does an elite athlete who is always on, turn off?

This advertising content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

Olympic bobsledder Lauren Gibbs has struggled with sleep her entire life. But as an elite athlete, she knows that sleep can be the difference between winning a key race and losing a spot on Team USA. So, why is sleep so important for performing our best? And what exactly happens when we sleep? We’ll check in with a sleep and athletics expert, and find out how the rest of us can improve our own sleep game.

Badge that says Listen on Apple Podcasts and links to the Apple podcast store
Badge that says Listen on Spotify and links to the Spotify page

Read Episode 5 Full Transcript Below:

Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

KATE [VO]: I’m Kate Berlant. I’m an actor, comic, and writer, and host of this podcast, “Are You Sleeping?”, from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm, produced by Vox Creative.

[MUX IN: THEME SONG]

KATE [VO]: Imagine you have a huge event tomorrow, a life-changing milestone. Maybe it’s an interview for your dream job, or your wedding day. Maybe you’re even an elite athlete, and that big moment is a shot at an Olympic medal.

[MUX IN: SOUND CHEERING, SOUND OF LAUREN TRAINING BY PULLING A SLED ON THE ICE]

KATE [VO]: How do you prepare? I mean, sure, you work out, training day in and day out.

[MUX IN: SOUNDS OF LAUREN TRAINING, INCLUDING: LAUREN TRAINING PUSHING SLED ON LAND, LAUREN LIFTING, LAUREN LIFTING WITH “WARRIOR SCREAM”, LAUREN LIFTING 2]

KATE [VO]: There’s hydration and nutrition, watching every morsel of food you put in your mouth.

[MUX IN: VARIOUS RECORDINGS OF LAUREN SAYING, “TWO CUPS OF BERRIES, I NEED FIBER, GREENS, PROTEIN POWDER, PLANT-BASED MILK,” AND THEN THE SOUND OF A BLENDER]

KATE [VO]: And of course, there’s the mental prep. But what about sleep? How does rest make or break an athlete’s performance?

LAUREN: Oh, sleep. Ever-elusive sleep. It’s something that I truly enjoy, but just feel like I never get enough of.

2018 US Olympic Silver Medalist, Lauren Gibbs

KATE [VO]: Meet Lauren Gibbs. She’s a world-class athlete. And someone who understands the powerful role that sleep plays in her performance. Because, surprise! Even some of the top competitors in the world have the same sleep struggles as you and me!

LAUREN: I think a bad night’s sleep is just mentally distracting, and that’s the tough part cause you don’t want to leave a race wondering, “If I’d gotten more sleep, would I have performed better?”

KATE [VO]: We’ll also hear from a sleep expert who works with athletes of all kinds. He’ll share strategies for performing at our best.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: People have to understand that sleep is right up there with nutrition, it’s right up there with mindfulness and exercise, like you can’t skimp on it.

KATE [VO]: Sleep touches every aspect of our lives. So it really is time to give rest the attention it deserves.

[MUX TRANSITION: FLUTE AND TRUMPET MUSIC MIXED WITH BASE AND DRUM BEATS]

KATE [VO]: Lauren is thirty-eight years old. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and she’s always been drawn to sports.

LAUREN: Yeah, I climbed out of my crib at eight months old. I didn’t choose it, it chose me. [laughs]

KATE [VO]: This woman is constantly on the move. She’s got this infectious energy, and an inherent drive to do more. And it made me wonder how that affected her sleep. Like, how does a person who is always on, turn off?

LAUREN: Oh, I’m a terrible sleeper. Just never have been a good sleeper, like, my mom’s like, “We used to put you to bed as a child and then like, we’d creak out of the room and then you’d wake up.”

And the night before a competition, I really struggle to sleep.

I think the mental and emotional stuff is the hardest part. But your thoughts can really take you somewhere that is unproductive, and impact your ability to rest.

KATE [VO]: I can totally relate. I know what it’s like to have butterflies in my stomach, and my mind is racing, and no matter how exhausted I am, I cannot sleep.

It’s obvious that Lauren is passionate about sports — and she loves competition. She played Division 1 volleyball at Brown University. Then she went all-in on Crossfit in her twenties.

LAUREN: And then I was competing at powerlifting meets and then bobsled.

[MUX IN: THE SOUND OF A BOBSLED GOING DOWN A TRACK]

KATE [VO]: Yes, you heard her right: bobsled.

LAUREN: I tried out as a joke in 2014 after the Sochi Olympics, and I guess eight years into the sport, I guess the joke’s on me now.

KATE [VO]: Lauren was introduced to the sport by someone who would become her bobsledding partner, the celebrated Olympian Elana Meyers Taylor.

LAUREN: Elana is the consummate recruiter, and so she was like, “You should bobsled.” And I was like, “Absolutely not. I was like, I’m 30, I can’t bobsled. That’s silly.” But there was a tryout at the Olympic Training Center. And I was like, I just want to tour the center, and like eat in the cafeteria and like, buy a T-shirt, maybe run into like some hunky Olympian, I don’t know. And I tried out and, first step went well and then got invited to the next, and invited next. And so I figured, I will keep pursuing this until they’re like, “Ma’am, this isn’t for you.” So, it’s been an incredible career. I made eight national teams, 17 World Cup medals, five World Championship teams, two World Championship medals, one Olympic Games, and an Olympic medal. So all in all, pretty darn good ride.

KATE [VO]: Lauren leaned on her sports background, her strength training, and her competitive drive to turn a joke into an Olympic medal. And in 2018, she won silver in the two-women bobsled.

LAUREN: From a joke. Yeah. Moral of the story is you should try things that seem silly sometimes. [laughs]

KATE: I love starting anything that changes your life as a joke. So what does it feel like to bobsled down a track? Because it seems to me just so terrifying and so unthinkably hard.

LAUREN: I think for people who have never done it before, the best way to describe it is being kicked off a cliff in a trash can.

[MUX IN: SOUNDS OF BOBSLED SLIDING]

LAUREN: I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is like really bad turbulence.

KATE: Oh, God.

LAUREN: So it’s like, you’re in the air and then all of a sudden … [Lauren makes boom noises then laughs]

KATE: So, I mean, I’m guessing a lot of people watch bobsledding during the Olympics but like me, don’t know the first thing about it. I mean, you have to be in crazy shape because you’re pushing this massive sled. How much does it weigh?

LAUREN: The one that I would slide in was 365 pounds.

KATE: Wow. And how long is the course and how fast are you going?

LAUREN: Yeah, the courses range a bit. They’re usually around 14 to 16 hundred meters long, and the ride takes about a minute and you can go anywhere from 75 to 90 miles an hour.

KATE: Oh, my God. That is so fast, I can only imagine how amped up on adrenaline you must be. I mean, my heart would be racing! What is it that you like about bobsledding?

LAUREN: I was known as a break woman and so we push the sled. We hop in.

[MUX IN: SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS ON ICE, THEN SOUND OF SLED SLIDING DOWN TRACK, THESE SOUNDS CONTINUE UNDER LAUREN TALKING]

LAUREN: And then we basically tuck down for however long the minute is and it’s, it’s not the most comfortable of rides, but I just really enjoyed it because the more you do it, the more you start to, one, you know the tracks so you know what’s supposed to happen. And when you’re having a good trip, you know when the pilot’s like on, and that’s a really fun experience, to be like, “Ooh, we’re crushing this run,” or, “Oh, that’s not really what’s supposed to happen.” And so, I think for some it’s always terrifying, but I really enjoyed it.

KATE [VO]: Can you tell that I’m completely amazed and fangirling over Lauren already? I mean, this woman picks up a new sport when she’s 30. And becomes so good at it that four years later, she’s representing the United States at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. It’s incredible!

But it wasn’t all rosey. Lauren still had a major struggle: Sleep.

LAUREN: Knowing that I have a race the next day 100 percent impacts my ability to sleep and then the copious amounts of stimulants I put into my body on race day keeps me from sleeping. I always say when I have too much caffeine, I can hear color. [laughs] It’s like everything is in HD. It’s crazy.

KATE: Oh, I hear you. So, what was it like to get yourself Olympic-ready?

[MUX IN: STEADY BEAT, LIGHT PIANO KEYS]

LAUREN: We train like Olympic sprinters and Olympic weightlifters. So we have to be really, really fast.

[MUX IN: ELECTRONIC BEAT, STEADY NOTES AND TAPPING]

LAUREN: We also have to be very strong and explosive. And we have to be able to continuously propel a moving object down a ramp of ice for about five seconds and then be able to delicately hop into the sled, making sure you’re not sending it into a skid going into corner one. And then you just have to calm yourself down enough to just kind of chill in the back so that you can now become a shock absorber. [chuckles]

KATE: Wow.

LAUREN: I would train six days a week, so a couple of hours in the morning of sprinting, and then a couple of hours in the afternoon of lifting, and then an hour or two of, like, rehab, pre-hab, recovery work. So it was a full day of training. So not a lot of time to have, like, a job.

KATE [VO]: Yeah, Lauren is clearly an “all-in” kind of gal. She gives everything she does 100-percent. But there’s a lot to being an elite athlete that goes on behind the podium. It requires a ton of sacrifice.

LAUREN: I think one thing that most people don’t know is that U.S. Olympians and Paralympians are not government-funded. So I think the biggest sacrifice is just financially.

KATE: Yeah.

LAUREN: It’s really expensive to train for the Olympics, and a lot of people go into debt. A lot of Olympians, Paralympians and hopefuls actually live below the poverty line and everything is done by, like, a ranking system. So like whether or not you get housing, access to facilities, food, access to sports med and those like different medical services, all depends on how well you do year in and year out. So I think that’s the toughest part is that you never know where you stand and it’s not solidified because you have to remake the team every single year.

KATE [VO]: Lauren says there is so much pressure to always perform at her best. There’s the physical stress of the rigorous training and meticulous nutrition. There’s the emotional, mental and financial stress of trying to become an Olympian.

And then there’s the travel.

LAUREN: I would say the most demanding part is being on the road for so long. We were on the road this past season for like six weeks. And for those who didn’t go home for Christmas and home before the Games, they were on the road for even longer. And then it’s a lot of, like, hurry-up-and-wait. So you’re moving heavy stuff around because we travel with our own gym, so we travel with weights and the bobsleds weigh 365 pounds. So we’re moving those things in and out of trucks, day in and day out, multiple times a day flipping sleds. And so, everybody’s like, “Oh, bobsledding, so hard on your body,” and like, no, preparing for bobsled and being on tour is really hard on your body.

[MUX IN: STEADY BEAT, LIGHT GUITAR NOTES]

KATE [VO]: Just lugging around all of this equipment is causing wear and tear, and that’s before she even gets on the track! Plus, a lot of Lauren’s competitions are in Europe. That means different time zones in lots of new cities and hotel rooms.

[MUX IN: SOUND OF A CAR DRIVING DOWN A ROAD]

LAUREN: We’re in a different bed, a different mattress every week. You now, we’re at the will of whatever pillow, like whatever European pillow, like, European beds are just different. They’re all like small twin beds. And so, there’s just not a lot of room. And, just, it’s a tough way of living.

KATE: To be honest, Lauren, this sounds like a nightmare to me. Because I’m addicted to my sleep schedule and my own bed and you’re constantly dealing with change and, of course, all the pressure mentally and physically. So, how much sleep do you actually get when you’re competing?

LAUREN: Yeah. After a race, like zero sleep. The night before a race, also like zero sleep. And then the rest of the week, it just depends what kind of stimulus I’ve experienced right before bed. You know, we’re literally in different hotels, week to week to week. Sometimes we’re with different roommates. Sometimes we have rooms to ourselves. Sometimes the mattresses are terrible. Sometimes the pillows are awful. Sometimes there’s, you know, a noisy hallway. So it really is a toss up.

KATE: Are there things that you bring with you on the road to help you sleep that you depend on?

LAUREN: Girl, yes! [laughs] So in my heightened travel-with-stuff moment, I brought a mattress pad.

KATE: Mm hmm.

[MUX IN: SOUNDS OF A CPAP MACHINE WHIRRING, VELCRO NOISE, FAN SOUND, HEART MONITOR BEEPING]

LAUREN: A pregnancy pillow. My CPAP. My diffuser. Silicone ear plugs. And an eye mask. And if I could have fit it into my luggage, I would have brought a fan for background noise, even though I have the earplugs in. I even had my tonsils removed and my deviated septum repaired. Like, I went in, y’all! [laughs]

KATE: Wow, yeah, that’s going in.

LAUREN: Yeah, commitment.

KATE: That’s beyond a pregnancy pillow.

LAUREN: Yes. [laughs] I went in. You have to. That’s how important sleep is, people! You have to fight for your right to sleep!

[MUX IN: STEADY DRUM BEAT, LIGHT PIANO KEYS]

KATE: Okay, so you’re lugging around all this sleep stuff, including a giant, super body pillow, and you just had surgery?

LAUREN: Yeah, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2016, and I did a sleep study that I was able to do through the Olympic Committee. And so, yeah, I used a CPAP for a long time. I don’t use it any longer, because I had my deviated septum repaired and my tonsils taken out. But I’d like to do another sleep study to see if it actually, um, resolved the issue cause, like, sometimes I feel great, but sometimes I still feel like a dumpster fire in the morning.

KATE: Lauren, you’re clearly super invested in trying to get a good night’s sleep. So I’m guessing you might have a few sleep routines you follow, too. Am I right?

LAUREN: Yeah, I try and get off my phone an hour before bed. It does not work great. I set a bedtime alarm, so an hour before I want to go to bed, I set an alarm that goes off and that just makes me think like, “Hey, it’s time to get ready to start going to bed,” because I will just zone into something, and then hours later, it’ll be 2 o’clock in the morning. So something that says, “Hey Lauren, it’s time to start shutting down” is really important. I try and keep my room as cool as possible, and then on my diffuser, I generally use the same oil around bedtime so in hopes that my body’s like, “Ooh, I think it’s time for bed.”

KATE [VO]: She’s also used a fitness tracker to monitor her sleep for years. And even with everything she’s mentioned, literally training herself for optimum rest, Lauren’s still fighting to get good sleep.

LAUREN: I can fall asleep, but I really have trouble staying asleep. And then once I’m awake, I really struggle to fall back asleep. It’s, like, almost impossible.

There’s been times where, like, I literally lay down at nine and three o’clock in the morning, I’m still awake. Cause I’m just like, “I can’t sleep.” Like can’t shut my brain off. And it doesn’t even have to be something bad, it can be something good, and I just like, the mind just starts to wander and it won’t turn off.

KATE: When you aren’t getting the sleep that you need, how does that affect your mood and also your training?

LAUREN: I’m very cranky and emotional. And I think my body is generally fine, but because I’m cranky and emotional, I’m then, like, usually annoyed about something and that bleeds into my training, so it’s definitely not productive. And then I have to have, like, a little chat with myself, and I have to be like, “Hey. You’re just annoyed, because you’re tired.”

KATE: Yeah.

LAUREN: “You’re fine. Get your stuff together and get to work.” So it’s all just a little bit more of a process, and it’s not as much, it’s not fun, right? It’s not fun being sleep-deprived. I think a lot of times, people find out I’m an Olympian, all they want to do is like, How do you train? How do you eat? And like, how much can you back squat or something like that? But no one ever asked me, what do you do to get really good, restorative sleep? And that is so important. And so, if your body’s not ready to perform, you’re more likely to get injured.

LAUREN: Trying to get enough sleep is probably my single most recovery focus as an athlete. So much about my mental state, emotional state, and physical state can be, you know, taken care of with a good night’s sleep. It’s amazing, it can be the difference between feeling like I’m too old and can’t do it, to like, “Ooh, I’m a superhero, no one can stop me!”

KATE [VO]: I completely get it. I mean, I want to feel unstoppable all of the time, too! And as we’ve learned on this show, sleep is a key to mental performance and physical recovery. So how can we all get that feeling?

[MUX IN: DRAMATIC BEAT, HIGH REPETITIVE NOTES]

DR. CHRIS WINTER: You getting in bed 10 minutes earlier, spending tiny amount of time less on your phone, can be a massive victory that we can build upon. I think that the athletes want to do the right thing, they just need a lot of support to do it.

KATE [VO]: More on sports, sleep, and science in a minute.

[MIDROLL]

KATE [VO]: I think a lot of us are starting to appreciate just how important sleep is to our lives. It can make the difference between slogging through a day and being at the top of our game.

As an Olympian, Lauren Gibbs’ entire career and livelihood has depended on how well she performs. And if she doesn’t get enough rest, she risks injury, longer recovery times, or even losing her spot on Team U.S.A.

So how do elite athletes like Lauren learn how to protect their sleep? And what can we, dear listeners, adopt in our own lives? Well, luckily for all of us, there are doctors who specialize in this.

A man with dark blonde hair, wearing a light button up shirt.
“Sleep Whisperer” & Neurologist, Dr. Chris Winter

DR. CHRIS WINTER: My name is Chris Winter, I’m a neurologist and sleep specialist in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m the author of the book “The Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution.”

KATE [VO]: Dr. Chris Winter has worked with adults and kids and with a special group of people: top athletes. That includes pretty much every kind of professional team. From major league baseball and basketball, to soccer, hockey and football. Plus collegiate and so-called amateur athletes, just like Lauren.

And I wanted to know how Chris works with top competitors who are struggling with sleep.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Yeah, so generally, it’s more about bringing in the science of sleep and improving it for the entire organization and not just the athletes. I mean, if you look at the staffs of these clubs, they’re incredibly overworked and under-slept. And so, I’m brought in just to sort of guide them in terms of, how can we convince somebody who’s sleeping five hours that maybe five and a half would be better than five? How can we get an excited athlete who has trouble settling down at night, able to do that before a big competition? How can we control their beliefs about the things in their lives that do affect sleep positively and the things that don’t?

So, it integrates itself very nicely with the sports psychologists, the training and strength and conditioning staffs, the nutritionist and the people who cook for the teams. And so, it’s fun to sort of go in there and figure out how sleep can make all of those things and more a little bit better.

KATE: So, Chris, no offense, but I’m guessing that not every top athlete wants to listen to a doctor talk about prioritizing sleep. Like, they’re an expert in their sport, and you’re an outsider.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Yeah, I really find athletic organizations fascinating in the sense that they’re little exclusive clubs. And I always say that my overall goal is for me to be sort of unnecessary at some point with that team. That the culture within the organization is so sleep positive, that the resources for their sleep are there, that I become like the orthopedic surgeon that yeah, you call them every now and then when something blows out their shoulder, but day in and day out, the club can handle the issues that sort of pop up. And so, there’s not only the treatment of the athlete that’s important to me, but the staff. Can I give them the support and information and education they need to be the de facto sleep doctors for the team, because in fact, they are. I mean, I don’t travel with this organization, you’re the one who will be with the team when the player is knocking on your door for a bucket full of Ambien. And how are you going to deal with that situation?

KATE: Huh. Is that a common thing? Like, athletes using substances to help them sleep?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: So, I mean, alcohol is the most common sleep aid in this country. So the idea that there are athletes out there who feel like you know, a beer, a little bit of alcohol takes the edge off, or THC is nothing new. So, sex is another one that I think is really interesting. You know, sex, particularly in men, can be very sedating. You know, we want the, the process leading up to sleep to be a positive one and a ritualistic one and a healthy one. And we try to avoid crutches of any sort, “I need X to fall asleep.” Blankets as the child, the pills as the adult, the sex as the, you know, ex-football player. No, you don’t. You just need a little bit of a better approach, maybe a little bit of education about sleep.

KATE: So, we clearly have a lot more to learn. Now Lauren said that when she does get a good night’s rest, she feels invincible, and I totally relate to that. But, I want to know, what happens in our bodies when we sleep?

[MUX IN: LOW, LONG NOTES DRAWN OUT]

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Sleep is everything when it comes to recovery. Particularly deep sleep, which is really the only time humans tend to make growth hormones, it’s a fountain of youth. It’s what makes us able to get beaten up over several bobsled runs, get a little something to eat, sleep, you know, wake up and do it all over again. And we know that an athlete who’s not prioritizing sleep is not likely to be in her sport over the next few years, when you compare them to somebody who is. So sleep is not only important for what I do today and tomorrow, but whether or not I’ll be doing it three years from now. And for athletes who love their sport, sleep is central to all that.

You know, there’s a reason why certain shady athletes will take a syringe full of growth hormone and inject themselves in a bathroom and flush the evidence down a toilet. Growth hormone recovers our body, it makes us stronger, it makes our muscles repair faster, mineralizes our bones, makes us less susceptible to injury, and if we are injured, we get better, faster. So sleep has its fingers in all of those things.

KATE: Right, because the deep sleep phase is the only time our bodies naturally produce those growth hormones!

So even though we know sleep is super important, that doesn’t mean we can just will ourselves to do it. Like the night before a big race, Lauren is tossing and turning. And I assume that’s because she’s got all this adrenaline and maybe anxiety pumping through her. Is there anything she can do to stop that? Or, you know, does she just have to learn to manage it?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: So you can do both. I think that you can learn to work through it, but I think you can stop it. So, what’s happening is the neurotransmitters that probably make her a fantastic bobsledder are now flooding her brain.

[MUX IN: HEARTBEAT GOING AT DIFFERENT PACES]

DR. CHRIS WINTER: If I were thrown onto a bobsled and you could measure my stress response to that first run down the track. My guess is it’s very different from her stress response as a seasoned bobsled expert. So she’s learned to take something that to me looks really terrifying and dangerous — and if you were to kind of monitor her brain activity, she might actually be calmer in the bobsled than she is in other aspects of her life, like the speech she has to give after she wins her medal might cause her more anxiety than the actual trip down the track because she’s created an awareness and a situational plan for being in there.

I think it’s probably both, I think that you can learn to manage the stress, but I also think that you can learn to reduce it or even eliminate it and get to a place where you’re like, “Man, I used to get so scared and upset when I would get ready to go to bed that I was almost paralyzed with fear. But that doesn’t happen anymore.”

KATE: Mmhmm. But that kind of response, the butterflies or whatever you want to call it, that’s probably beneficial, right, when Lauren has to be “on”?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Absolutely. Yeah, look at a weightlifter, you know, they’re breaking stuff, sniffing it, you know, they look like they’re ready to rip the head off of a small animal and eat it raw, like they just have this kind of crazed look. You know, they’re not just kind of, oh, it’s time to lift, okay, great. They’ve got to learn to harness that and make it such that it’s, like you said, it’s just the right amount of intensity to carry them through that event, whether it’s a short bobsled run or a weight lifting thing or a long football game.

But yes, I think that there is a role for those things to be optimized in a way that might be different from when you’re sitting down and having, having lunch with friends.

[MUX IN: TWO STEADY BEATS, ONE LOW AND ONE HIGH]

DR. CHRIS WINTER: We always laugh that coaches are really good at teaching players how to activate the Hulk. You know, going from Dr. Bruce Banner to the Hulk, they’re good at that. But coaches never really help you go from the Hulk back to Bruce Banner, like, okay, the game’s over. We did great. We did poorly. Let’s all hold hands and turn the lights down the locker room and breathe and relax. Like nobody’s doing that.

KATE: Mm, I love that image. So how do you turn back into mild-mannered Bruce Banner?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: So, I think that the first thing we have to understand when an individual says, “I can’t shut my mind off at night,” is that that’s not the goal. This idea that you get in bed now, you’ve got to shut your mind off. And if you start thinking about your sport or you start thinking about, when’s the last time you put oil in your car, that all is lost. That’s a, that’s a conditioned response that you’ve developed because nobody’s taught you otherwise. And I think it all starts with an athlete or an average individual judging success or failure in bed by quickness of unconsciousness. And I think that’s, that’s something we see in our culture all the time. I’m not sure that falling asleep fast is a great metric for good sleep.

The other problem is this idea that being in a bed at night, and awake, is awful. Look, the idea that you have to be unconscious in your bedroom for any sort of recovery to work is simply not true. And that’s why I like for athletes to focus on rest. It really takes sort of a radical re-conception of what our rest and recovery is, because, you know, I tell patients and players and people all the time, I think the secret to sleep is being equally comfortable in bed at night, awake or unconscious.

KATE: Oh I like that, to take the stress of trying to fall asleep away and to just focus on overall rest. I can definitely get into that. So, athletes are all about training. What kind of mental training do you prescribe for sleep?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: So we give athletes a task to do when they wake up instead of sitting there being upset, like, okay, well, you’re awake. So let’s start doing some runs of the bobsled or, you can move away from your sport. What do you want to get your mother for her birthday? This would be a good time to start thinking that. Or imagine building your dream house, like, build it in your sleep, you know?

So it was funny. One time I was telling a baseball player, “Listen, before you go to bed every night, I want you to throw 30 perfect pitches just like your coach works with you, I want you to visualize the field, I want you to see your favorite catcher, the stands, the sky, the grass, the dirt, 30 pitches and then you can go to sleep.” And the next time I saw him, he said, “Man, Doc, I was only able to throw about eight, nine pitches and then I fall asleep, so I don’t know what to do.” I’m like, you know, “That’s fine. That was the point, you’re either throwing the pitches in your sleep or you fall asleep but either one’s fine.”

KATE [VO]: Chris says visualization isn’t just for athletes. He told me about a 2014 sleep study from Switzerland that divided people into two groups.

One group went to sleep as usual. The other group listened to a recording that told them to picture themselves as a fish — going deeper and deeper into the ocean.

[MUX IN: SOUND OF SOMETHING SUBMERGED IN THE OCEAN, BUBBLES UNDERWATER]

DR. CHRIS WINTER: The individuals who did that, were getting more deep sleep than the people who weren’t. So, you know, people always kind of say, “Oh, I don’t know how to meditate, I’m not sure if I’m doing it right.” That’s pretty easy. Imagine yourself going deeper and deeper into the ocean. Those little practices and things like that, not only help, but I think they build a sense of confidence in some people, too.

KATE: Okay, so this is incredibly helpful. And it sounds like we should all just chill out and take some of the pressure off ourselves when it comes to sleep. But that’s of course easy to say, when the Olympics are at stake in Lauren’s case, it’s a lot harder to do.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: I think in Lauren’s case, you sort of adopt the British cycling mentality. So Great Britain basically said many years ago, “Look, we want to be better in cycling.” And they came up with this brilliant plan to make everything related to British Cycling one percent better. So, we’ll make the seat post on our bikes one percent more light and aerodynamic. So just everything was one percent better, including their sleep, their nutrition, their mental performance, and so that’s where I think that I would start with Lauren.

And when you’re an athlete that deals with what she’s dealing with, big time equipment, big time travel, then you’ve got a lot of little variables that you could adjust. You know, could you make your mental conditioning one percent better? And the sleep I think you could probably do more than one percent better given the circumstances she’s in. So, you know, to me, you’d look at everything. How are you sleeping in the days, weeks, months leading up to your competition? One of my favorite sayings is, “Sleep’s the most important thing in the world outside of bacon and sex. However, tonight’s sleep is irrelevant.” And what I mean by that when I say that to an athlete is that, if you’ve been sleeping wonderfully all month and now it’s the 31st and you have a difficult night, I think our bodies have a capacity to sort of deal with that. But we need that store of sleep to be there.

KATE: I can definitely work on making my sleep one-percent better. Baby steps. Thanks, Chris.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Yeah, you bet.

[MUX TRANSITION: ELECTRONIC MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: So, when I spoke to Lauren, she was at an Olympic training center in California. She’s currently taking a break from her grueling schedule to recover from two hip surgeries. And she’s got a new gig, working as the vice president of partnerships for a personal growth app.

But she hasn’t completely ruled out another Olympic Games.

LAUREN: I haven’t officially retired from bobsled. I mean, I’m leaving it open to one, the season going into 2026 being like, I still have bobsled and I’m in good shape. Let’s go. Also finding and falling in love with a sport by 2028 that I can do in my 40s and go to the Olympics.

So because sport has been such a constant in my life, I’m definitely not closing the door to the possibility that I will be back competing in something, but I’m really hoping the next phase is just Pilates.

KATE [VO]: And even though she’s not in Olympic competition mode, she’s still struggling with her sleep, but it’s a little different now.

LAUREN: Now I’m working full-time and I’m like, I know I still need the same amount of sleep. But it doesn’t have the same value in my head, like I haven’t worked through the fact that the amount of sleep you need to be an Olympian is the same amount of sleep you need to work a full day because now I’m working a different muscle, is your brain, your brain’s considered a muscle? I don’t know, for the purpose of this podcast, it’s a muscle. [laughs]

KATE: It is in here.

LAUREN: Right? My, my brain’s very muscular. So the amount of energy it takes to be on meetings all day and interacting with customers and my team, is the same amount of energy it took to work out. I just haven’t organized my new normal very well.

KATE: So when you think about entering this new stage of your life and your career, what are your sleep goals?

LAUREN: Yeah, I hope I can get eight hours of sleep a night. That’s what I would love. I just, like…Because when I can’t get sleep, people are like, “Are you on something?” Like, when I’m rested, I am funny and, like, caring, and I will go out of my way and I’m patient. Ugh, my patience is so much higher. So, like, however much sleep I need to have that Lauren show up consistently, that’s the amount of sleep I want.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: Maybe you’re a top athlete like Lauren, or you’re training to reach your own personal speed or endurance goals. Or maybe you’re like me and sports and working out just [clicks tongue] aren’t your thing. But, when it comes to sleep, it doesn’t really matter who you are. Everybody needs restful, restorative sleep to be the best version of themselves whether that’s with your kids, at the office, or on the Olympic stage.

So take a stand and prioritize your sleep! It might not make you a real-life superhero like Lauren, but maybe you’ll feel a lot more invincible.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC FOR THE REST OF EPISODE]

KATE [VO]: Next time, on the final episode of “Are you Sleeping?”

BALAND: You know, I was sleeping and I found myself paralyzed, you know, shockingly. And I thought, “What do I do?” You know, I can’t move. I can’t speak. And I tried to scream. That was my first reaction, you know, I went, “dad, mom,” but just the word wouldn’t come out of my mouth. They were just stuck there. I start having this feeling that some ominous evil presence was in my bedroom and this feeling escalated with each second and it was got more and more terrifying.

KATE [VO]: Have you ever woken up inside a nightmare to find a demon sitting on your chest? We deep-dive into the terrifying phenomenon known as sleep paralysis, and we’ll meet a researcher developing a cure.

To find out more about this podcast, join us at “vox dot com slash are you sleeping.”

And be sure to subscribe and to tell your friends about the show! That’s the best way for us to get the word out.

“Are You Sleeping?” is an informational podcast and does not substitute medical advice, contact your doctor if you’re seeking medical advice on your sleeping habits.

(CREDITS)

Advertiser Content From Mattress Firm  logo