Analyzing student-athletes' sleep habits the latest project for Tech sports medicine area

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Dalton Keene expected to sign a few forms once he arrived on Virginia Tech’s campus to start the spring semester. The talented tight end from Littleton, Colorado anticipated his signature being needed on multiple items as simply a part of the enrollment process.

But he got an early indication of the seriousness of being a Division I athlete when a member of Tech’s sports medicine staff handed him a questionnaire seeking responses concerning his sleep habits. That same staff member asked Keene to chart his sleep habits for a week.

“It [the sleep study] shows how much they’re looking out for us, and they’re trying to keep us in the best shape possible,” Keene said. “They spend a lot of resources on us and want to keep us going well.

“It [sleep] doesn’t seem like one of the most important things when you think of everything like practice, lifting and eating – stuff like that. It doesn’t seem like it would be that important, but it really is.”

In the never-ending attempt to help its athletes get a competitive advantage, the Tech sports medicine department decided late last year to start gathering information on the sleep habits of select Tech student-athletes. Staff members will receive any needed support in this endeavor from Carilion Clinic, which acquired contractual rights to provide health care for the Hokies’ student-athletes last fall. The move allowed Carilion Clinic, which has sleep centers in both the Roanoke and New River Valley areas, and Virginia Tech to continue building on an ever-growing partnership.

Keene, and the other eight mid-year enrollees, received the questionnaires and represent the initial test cases. Plans also are in the works to monitor the sleeping habits of Tech’s men’s basketball players and eventually those in other sports.

Tech’s initiative falls squarely in line with the priorities of the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics. Last summer, Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, and his team came up with a list of nine strategic sports medicine priorities for schools to focus upon in relation to the health of student-athletes. Sleep, nutrition and performance was one of those priorities.

The Tech athletics department has made tremendous strides in nutrition under the direction of Jennie Zabinsky, assistant AD for sports nutrition, and her staff. In August of 2014, the NCAA loosened regulation and allowed departments to provide unlimited access to food and snacks. Zabinsky and her staff oversee nutrition educational programs for student-athletes, counseling of student-athletes on nutrition, team meals (even during the offseason) and the Nutrition Oasis, a gathering place for student-athletes to get fruit, sandwiches, trail mix, recovery smoothies and more for both recovery and performance.

So now, the sports medicine staff wants to focus on the sleep component – for a multitude of reasons.

“We’re looking at it from a performance standpoint, a recovery standpoint and an injury prevention standpoint,” said Dr. Brad McCrady, Tech’s team physician for the men’s basketball program and an assistant professor at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM). “Sleep is probably one of the most important factors that we need to consider for all those types of things.

“So I think it’s good to get some background information and get some basic numbers on how many hours these athletes sleep, how frequently they get that amount of hours, how many times they wake up at night … it’s good to get that information, so that we can then start coming up with ideas as to how it relates to performance and how it may relate to injuries in certain athletes.”

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep each night for both young and older adults. But is that realistic for a student-athlete given time demands? After all, practices usually run two hours, but athletes also spend time lifting weights, doing conditioning drills, and in many sports, watching film. Factor in classes, study halls and homework, and the hours in a day quickly dissipate.

“It’s not realistic at all,” McCrady admitted.

He has worked with two sports of concern – men’s and women’s basketball. Basketball players exert a lot of energy. They play a lot of games, which means a lot of practices. The season also runs long – from October through mid- to late March. The games take place on just about every night of the week over the course of a season, so the sport doesn’t lend itself to consistent sleep habits among its participants.

On the men’s side, head coach Buzz Williams recognizes that. He cited late in the season how some NBA teams now spend the night in a city following a game, as opposed to hopping on a plane after the game and flying to the next city – all to get more and better sleep. That idea has merit, but increased lodging and meal costs and missed class time probably would prohibit college basketball programs from implementing that strategy.

“Our concern is mostly sports that have weeknight games,” McCrady said. “Those are the ones probably the most affected by it because they have games during the week, they have practices during the week, and then if they are traveling, that adds up as well. Since football has games on weekends, they typically don’t have as big of an issue because they’re a little more consistent each night. The rest of the sports – the basketballs, the soccers, the ones that have weeknight events – are the ones most affected by a lack of sleep.”

McCrady and the sports medicine staff are being proactive on the topic while in the process of gathering data from Tech’s student-athletes through the questionnaires. They remind student-athletes of their “open-door policy,” encouraging them to share any sleep-related issues, as they do with any medical issues. They have offered suggestions to those in that group – ones such as staying away from exercise three hours before bedtime (exercise elevates the heart rate, making it harder to sleep) and not looking at phones or computer screens an hour or so before going to bed. Studies show that these stimulate the eyes, which delays the onset of sleep.

They also suggest naps, if possible, during the course of a day. But student-athletes need to be careful with the length of a nap.

“Nothing past an hour,” McCrady said. “Once we get past an hour, we fall into deep sleep, and it’s harder to wake up from that throughout the rest of the day. So we recommend short naps, less than an hour and more so in that 20- or 30-minute time frame. That’s good for recharging the body if there is a sleep deficit.”

Nutrition also plays a role. Zabinsky and her staff, too, encourage student-athletes to ask questions. With sleep-related questions, they usually start by querying student-athletes on things such as their caffeine intake since caffeine acts as a stimulant. They also ask student-athletes what they eat and when they eat it, and make suggestions accordingly. For example, they often recommend Cheribundi, a tart cherry drink, as a drink substitute for those with sleeping issues. Among its many healthy ingredients, tart cherries contain melatonin, a hormone that aids with sleep.

“Nutrition certainly is part of the conversation, as it pertains to sleep issues,” Zabinsky said. “We often recommend a balanced diet, as we do for a lot of different issues, and we’d also recommend eating earlier in the day. We’re doing that with a lot of our student-athletes now anyway because, when you relax late at night, you tend to eat more. When you eat more, you could have digestive issues, which interrupt quality sleep.”

Both the sports medicine staff and the nutrition staff urge student-athletes to steer away from over-the-counter sleep aids without consulting them first. Some supplements contain banned substances by the NCAA, and others have hidden side effects. In certain instances, the supplement market lacks the regulations needed to make supplements safe for consumers.

“For us, we always take a ‘food first’ approach for any issue,” Zabinsky said. “We want to analyze what you’re eating and drinking and make any adjustments and see how you respond. There is a place for supplements, but we’d want to discuss that with you instead of having you go out on your own. There can be a lot of risks involved.”

There are a lot of external and internal factors that affect sleep for student-athletes, and in general, the human population. Lack of time, poor nutrition habits, late-evening practices and too much cell-phone/computer viewing represent just a small sample. Other factors include stress, depression, hormone imbalances, chronic illnesses and others.

The important thing to note is that sleep plays an incredibly important role in student-athlete performance and recovery – a role often overlooked by those who work in positions of responsibility within college athletics. The willingness of Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic to dive deeper and go farther into this realm speaks to both entities’ willingness to provide the best care for Tech’s student-athletes.

“We’re hitting the tip of the iceberg as far as to why we need sleep,” McCrady said. “It’s definitely common sense that we need sleep, but why is it important from performance, injury prevention and recovery? The specific biochemical or neurotransmitters that fluctuate with sleep or lack of sleep … we’re just getting into that, and I think more specifics about that are going to come out in the next five or 10 years.”

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