Late-night competition at the Olympics could compromise athletes’ performance

Never before have Olympic matches been scheduled so late.

A number of matches in the 2016 Rio Olympics have been scheduled after midnight, when athletes’ bodies expect to be asleep. João Paulo Pereira Rosa is a researcher member of the Brazilian Paralympic Academy and consults the Brazilian Olympic Committee on minimizing fatigue and maximizing recovery of athletes in the Olympic Games. In an article published in Chronobiology International, he examines how late-night competition might impact athlete performance.

ResearchGate: How many of the competitions will be held at night? How does this compare to previous Olympic games?

João Paulo Pereira Rosa: Preliminary and final competitions in some sports—such as swimming, track and field, basketball, and beach volleyball—will be held after midnight. Never before have competitions been held as late as they will be in Rio 2016. In the previous Olympic Games in London, swimming for example had finals in the late afternoon, with qualifying series in the morning.

RG: What’s the reasoning behind the nighttime competitions in Rio?

Rosa: The International Olympic Committee announced the event schedule without giving a specific reason. However, it’s customary with events like the Olympic Games for media rights holders to influence competition schedules.

RG: How might competing after midnight affect athletes’ performance?

Rosa: Generally, the optimal time for an athletes’ peak performance is in the time window from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm, when the core temperature is higher. At night, core temperatures begin to decrease and levels of the hormone melatonin increase, signaling to the body that it's time to rest. In other words, swimmers, basketball players, volleyball players and runners will compete when physiologically it is time to sleep. Thus, the potential for optimal performance of the kind needed to achieve Olympic and world records can decrease considerably.

RG: Do late-night competitions increase the risk of injury?

Rosa: Late-night competitions may increase the risk of injury for athletes in that they contribute to sleep deprivation, with poor rest and recovery quality due to the schedule of competitions. Research has examined the impact of sleep deprivation in young athletes and found that those who slept fewer than eight hours per night on average were 1.7 times more likely to be injured.

RG: Will athletes in certain disciplines be affected more than others?

Rosa: Circadian rhythms have a direct influence on the body in a way that’s relevant to all sports. They impact variables such as muscle strength, flexibility, sensory-motor coupling, and perceptual and cognitive functions. Considering these factors, competing at night in any discipline can affect athletes’ performance.

RG: Could athletes who are night-owls profit from late competitions?

Rosa: For high level athletes, any detail can be an advantage, and there’s no doubt that night-owls can benefit in late-night competitions. In some sports, such as volleyball, some matches will take place late at night and others are scheduled for the morning. So early risers will have an advantage then.  Researchers at the University of Birmingham have shown that individuals’ personal body clocks differ, with early risers reaching their athletic peak around lunchtime, while night owls perform best in the evening. Missing one’s personal window for peak performance can cause a performance variation of up to 26 percent.

RG: What can coaches and athletes do to prepare for particularly late matches?

Rosa: Coaches and athletes should take competition late at night, low sleep quality, and poor recovery into consideration when creating strategies to minimize harm to athletes. Specialists in chronobiology, sleep, and exercise can consult with Olympic teams to develop physical, technical, tactical, and psychological preparation strategies for athletes’ circadian rhythms, creating the best possible environment for athletes to achieve their ideal performance.

The Olympic schedule is a reality and will not change, so teams will have to work around it, building in opportunities for rest and recovery. One interesting strategy some teams have implemented are training camps that simulate the routine and schedule of the Olympic Games. This can acclimatize athletes, allowing them to readjust their biological clocks.

Featured image courtesy of Andy Miah