Sleep pattern and staging in elite adolescent rugby players

The AASM advocates eight–ten hours of sleep per night for adolescents, and some studies have suggested that practicing sport may increase how much sleep athletes require. However, sleep needs in adolescent athletes have remained unclear to date. The findings in this study lend some insight into the sleep patterns of this group and raise the question of whether the amount of sleep measured in the study is sufficient for adequate recovery from the stressors these young athletes are exposed to. Busy schedules during the competitive season decrease the opportunity for sleep and prevent elite adolescent rugby players from catching up on their sleep at weekends, resulting in a reduction of REM sleep proportion and higher level of sleepiness. Sleep therefore needs to be considered when planning weekend sporting activities.

Adolescence is marked by critical transitions that may trigger several behavioural disturbances, particularly with regard to sleep patterns. Striking data from all over the world shows that poor sleep patterns are common among this age group (Gradisar, Gardner and Dohnt, 2011).  This is a problem compounded by an array of endogenous and exogenous factors forming the so-called “Perfect Storm” of altered sleep duration and quality (Carskadon, 2011). Poor sleep has been linked to detrimental effects on both the mental and physical development of adolescents (Short et al, 2013). However, little attention has been given so far to the effect of poor sleep on adolescent athletes.

 

Young athletes not only have to contend with school commitments and the physiological processes associated with adolescence, but also the constraints of elite sports practice. The recent review paper by Fox et al, (2019) underlined the lack of studies on sleep patterns in this age group. It further advocated for additional research to clarify the extent to which adolescent athletes’ sleep, or lack thereof, is attributable to adolescence and/or to high-level sports training. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to assess subjective and objective sleep (using portable electroencephalography); daily routine and activities; daytime sleepiness; and perceived stress in adolescent elite rugby players during the competitive season, in comparison with adolescents of a similar age who do not do any elite sports. Analysis on week-to-weekend sleep discrepancy was also conducted.

 

Overall, we found insufficient sleep duration in both adolescent groups during the week (less than seven hours a night). However, young rugby players presented earlier bedtimes, a lower proportion of non-REM (N2) sleep, and more time spent in slow-wave (N3) sleep. Bedtimes and getting-up times were later at the weekend for both groups. However, the later getting-up time was much more noticeable in the non-athlete control group, resulting in a longer time spent in bed, total sleep time, and time spent on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep than on weekdays. Weekend time spent in bed, total sleep time, and slow-wave sleep remained similar to weekday values in rugby players, but we found a decrease in sleep efficiency marked by higher wake after sleep onset (WASO), and a decrease in REM sleep. The adolescents’ schedules showed an increase in time spent by rugby players in overall sport-related activities during the weekend, mainly due to competition and sport-related travel. This increase resulted in higher overall activities and lower sleep opportunity time, even though time spent on social and free-time activities was still restricted when compared with the control group.

 

These findings highlight the urgent need for strategies to manage and improve the sleep of young rugby players during the in-season competitive phase.

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