Hugh Fullagar is currently undertaking a combined role as a doctoral candidate and sport scientist at the Institute of Sports and Preventative Medicine (FIFA Centre) within the University of Saarland, Germany. Specifically, he is studying the effects of different recovery strategies (most notably sleep) on various recovery and performance parameters of elite football players under the supervision of Prof. Tim Meyer in collaboration with Aaron Coutts and Rob Duffield at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Jonathan Bloomfield from Sports Discovery caught up with Hugh for a bit of a chat to tell us about the work he’s currently doing…
JB: Hugh, welcome to Sports Discovery. Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to taking on this doctoral research in Germany…
HF: Hi mate, much appreciated for the opportunity to chat to you guys today. Post-secondary school education I took a year off to travel, before commencing studies at the University of Wollongong (Bachelor of Exercise Science). In the final year of my studies Assoc. Prof. Nigel Taylor approached me about doing a Masters in Research with the state wide fire-fighting service, where we focussed on re-evaluating the physical demands of fire fighting to produce a new range of fitness tests. Here I really grew an appreciation of the benefit and enjoyment of research and within this role we also worked closely with the Australian Defence Force. Although the Masters with these organisations was extremely demanding, in hindsight the high standards they expected set me up well for the work I do now within high performance sport research. Following that, I took some time off to travel once again but I always planned to do a PhD given the opportunity and doing it abroad appealed to me greatly. I found this project in Germany with Tim Meyer through some PhD job searches, loved the general idea where the institute wanted to take the project and applied (through some convincing from Aaron and Rob). Luckily I got the gig and although I miss the surf being a coastal boy in the European mainland, I am very fortunate to work with a great team of people, both here and abroad. Specifically, learning from Tim and the experiences and knowledge he passes on from his work with the German National Team, as well as the extensive applied and academic experience of Rob and Aaron, you realise you are in a rare and exciting position. My biggest passion in life is sport, so I feel very grateful for the opportunity to work within this international domain, collaborate and conduct applied work with some great football teams and do some research which is benefitting the applied world (hopefully!).
JB: You’ve recently published some interesting articles in the area of sleep and athletic performance, some of which have received huge downloads already. What would be some of the top headlines from these papers?
HF: The recent review articles mainly focus on two main interactions: i) the first one in Sports Medicine looks at the effect of sleep loss on performance (i.e. the effect of losing sleep before a match and how it might affect the subsequent physiological performance) and ii) the second one that we collaborated together on in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance focuses on the interplay between sleep and the recovery process (i.e. the effect of losing sleep following a match and how this might affect the recovery timeline). From the first paper, it seems although exercise and athletic performance drops following sleep loss there are many instances where it can be maintained, such as acute maximal efforts. This is also backed up by anecdotal evidence by many coaches. Perhaps more concerning is when athletes continually suffer sleep loss, where it appears a reduction in sleep quality and quantity could result in an autonomic nervous system imbalance, simulating symptoms of the overtraining syndrome. But the most concerning of all is definitely the almost unequivocal reduction in cognitive function, findings that would predictably suggest negative consequences for athletes requiring high neurocognitive reliance (e.g. almost any sport!).
The aim of the paper in IJSPP was to examine the current evidence of sleep and the potential role it may play in post-exercise recovery, with a tailored focus on professional team-sport athletes. Recent studies show that team-sport athletes are at high risk of poor sleep during and following competition; however we should highlight that there is limited published data available and that any published data should be taken with its relevant context. That is, each sport and situation is extremely specific especially at the professional level, so we need to recognise that soccer players may sleep very differently to swimmers, and that soccer players may sleep differently depending on whether it may be a training day or a match day. Naps, sleep extension and sleep hygiene practices appear advantageous to performance; however, future proof of concept studies are now required to determine the efficacy of these interventions on the post-exercise recovery (e.g. the degree at which recovery parameters return to baseline following a distinct exercise bout and disrupted sleep such as the return of creatine kinase to baseline values following a rugby match). Overall, team-sport athletes appear to be susceptible to reductions in sleep quality and duration (and potentially recovery) during and following competition (especially at night), during periods of congested fixture scheduling and longer forms of travel. However, we need further sport-specific observations of these instances (case studies) and additional intervention research which may be suited to specific situations when the risk of compromised sleep is higher (i.e. playing at home or away, at night and/or inclusive of travel).
Finally, we also need to be careful of how these reviews and data is interpreted. The relevance of some of this information will not always apply to elite players for various reasons; whilst within applied practice (for the most part) only individual norms/responses are of relevance. In future research, we need to address this gap between research and applied work. From a sleep perspective, this could include collecting, analysing and presenting a host of extraneous factors/influences that are of relevance to high performance sport which could assist practice; such as player experience, strength and endurance levels, age and cognitive tests such as reaction time and tactical/pattern recognition.
JB: Why is it that everyone all of a sudden is taking a huge interest in the area of sleep?
HF: Although I am not nearly as experienced as many others in the field of sports science, it seems that certain things go ‘in and out of fashion’ at certain times in our field, however why it happens I am not so sure! It is possible that the increased demands on professional athletes (either physical, psychological, or personal) has caused an increased focus on recovery, which sleep is one component of. I do think that the growing appreciation of sleep is great with regards to worrying about the ‘most important things’ in recovery. We as sport scientists do seem to spend a lot of time worrying about marginal gains from a recovery perspective (and so we should at certain times) but it is important to first worry about the bigger picture and I would say sleep falls into this category. We should make sure we get the basics right (i.e. sleep, nutrition) before we focus on that ‘extra’ 1% improvement and I don’t think we as a field may have always done that. In saying this, I do think that there can be a public perception on the over reliance or the ‘magic’ of sleep and it being the ‘key ingredient’ to success/performance. Whilst it is no doubt important, we need to appreciate there are numerous other aspects of performance and recovery which can at various times play a far greater role than sleep.
JB: What recommendations can you make to sports scientists about how best to measure their player’s sleep?
HF: This can sometimes be a tough one as I think it depends on the relationship you have with your players. If it is good and the players are trusting, a simple daily questionnaire on sleep quality and duration can be configured into most high performance teams’ monitoring routines (and admittedly is within most sports at present). Additionally, the use of wristwatch actigraphs can give a good objective overview of players sleeping patterns. When interpreting these data it is important to understand the individual requirement for sleep. For example, if you have player A that sleeps for 7 hours versus player B that sleeps for 9 hours, it doesn’t necessarily mean A is a ‘worse’ sleeper than B. Quality of sleep is also important and is sometimes wrongly overlooked in favour of duration. If the player shows no obvious signs of distress, daytime tiredness or cognitive/physical problems they will usually be OK. However, it is also important to recognise that this interpretation of data should always be done in consultation with a medical doctor. This is especially pertinent for players who have sleep issues and if the problem is excessive then a sleep physician should be consulted (where polysomnography can be employed). A potentially new screening tool has just been published by sleep physician Dr Charles Samuels (‘The Athlete Sleep Screening Questionnaire: a new tool for assessing and managing sleep in elite athletes; BJSM, 2015), which following further validation procedures may be able to provide a sleep-screening tool which will hopefully assist in identifying whether specific clinical interventions are required for certain athletes. With regards to monitoring sleep for players’, it is important to consider times when sleep will likely be altered (late night matches, travel) and whether this will affect subsequent training sessions, in combination with the smallest worthwhile change (e.g. standard monitoring practices). For instance, even if there is a reduction in sleep indicating that the player might be pulled from training, a balanced approach should be employed whereby the monitoring of sleep is just one part of a larger monitoring process where all aspects are considered before making such decision (e.g. training load, wellness, motivation etc).
JB: What should a sport scientist advise if they were to suspect a player had an issue with their sleep?
HF: As mentioned above, it is also important to recognise that sleep problems should always be done in consultation with a medical doctor/sleep physician. After discussions with the relevant medical staff, the first point of call (depending on the situation – if it is personal there may need to be other avenues investigated) is usually to consult the player directly and simply talk to them about possible reasons for the sleep disturbance. There may be medical reasons for the sleep disruption, whereby the medical doctor can offer expertise on how to fix the issue. The reasons could also be behavioural , which is probably where we as sport scientists can make an impact into educating the player on the importance of sleep and the various strategies available into maximising sleep quality and quantity. While acknowledging that part of the role of a sport scientist is to educate the player we should not underestimate the way players can educate us, so listening to the players input on a range of issues, not just about sleep, is also of critical importance.
JB: How should players set about maximising their sleep?
HF: Each sport will have different external factors which could potentially be affecting sleep. So the first thing is to understand what these factors are for your sport, then you can go about figuring how to overcome them and maximising sleep where necessary. In general, conduct correct sleep hygiene practice during situations where sleep may be an issue. This includes no technology 30 min before bedtime, no TV or use of laptops in bed, dark, cool (but not cold) and quiet rooms (blinds closed). Set a regular sleep schedule where possible, and introduce relaxation and meditation techniques if necessary. These will presumably affect each athlete differently due to the intra-individual variability in sleep requirement so be aware that it’s not a ‘one size fits all approach’. For instance, almost all players will use their smart phones before bed but not all will be negatively affected (as is theoretically predicted). For example, some players will need to talk to their partner on Skype before bedtime and this will leave them in a more relaxed state than if they avoided the technology as per a typical sleep hygiene protocol, so a cost versus benefit approach should always be employed. Another simple modifiable includes getting a good and the right mattress for each player. Some elite players whom have young children make the choice to stay in a hotel the night before match to get a good night’s sleep so this may also be an option for some players. When travelling, ensure adequate hydration and time meals appropriately (usually in sync with the arrival time zone), move around the transportation vessel where/when possible and synchronise light exposure to the arrival time zone. And again, keeping an open line of communication between staff, coaches and players will always optimise the preparation and decision making process.
JB: Finally, you’re in the closing stages of completing your thesis, what are you next looking forward to doing in your career?
HF: I have been fortunate throughout my PhD in gaining valuable experience in many applied platforms (e.g. training load monitoring, strength and conditioning) such as work with our junior triathletes and swimmers at our Olympic Training Centre, consultation with European clubs and national teams, short internships with AZ Alkmaar in combination with lecturing and teaching students at the university. Experiencing this balance between applied work and research is crucial and it is something that I would definitely like to take further moving forward into the next phase of my career. In saying this, I realise I am relatively new to this field and there is always much to learn from more experienced personnel, so I am looking forward to hopefully learning from these people in the future. It is always important to sometimes step outside your way of doing something and gain a different perspective; there’s usually more than one way to fix a problem. I have found putting myself out there and doing extracurricular stuff like strength and conditioning certifications and online courses like Applied Sports Performance by Jason Weber and Darren Burgess offers that extra insight from experienced and successful staff that I wouldn’t have always considered, but is just as vital. Looking forward to the next phase, I am very passionate about both continuing to contribute to academic research and also practically servicing elite athletes in the field (from a combinative view of sport sci/s & c and coaching) so finding a position which offers such a blend would be the dream but I realise those positions don’t grow on trees! I am also really interested in coach education and player talent development pathways, and improving the liaisons between coaches, sports medicine practitioners/staff and players so that is an avenue I would love to go down too. Perhaps outside this realm but further down the line I am deeply passionate about indigenous Australia, so any long term work involving stamping out racism, creating an inclusive culture (not just within sport) for all people is definitely something I want to contribute to. I think it’s also important to recognise that when you are in the early stage of your career to not always be in rush to find the dream job. I was lucky enough to meet David Joyce (High Performance Manager at GWS Giants, AFL, Australia) when I was last in Oz and a recent quote that DJ put up recently I think runs very true: Don’t be in a rush to be successful, be in a rush to be excellent. If you are humble and constantly trying to improve yourself and those around you (like any good professional athlete/team), then the right opportunity will present itself in due course.
JB: Hugh, thanks a million for your time today and for giving us such a great insight, I’m certain our Sports Discovery readers will have really enjoyed this post. Best wishes for your next phase of your career, stay in touch…
Follow Hugh on Twitter @HughFullagar