Treating the England rugby team: former club doctor on the importance of sleep

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Sports physician Dr Phil Batty, former team doctor to the England Rugby team and Manchester City F.C, talks to us about the role that sleep plays in physical health.

Whoever you’re rooting for at the Six Nation’s this year, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the athleticism of all the players. What health advice would you be giving the players during the lead up?

Players are screened when they go into the England camp and this often consists of a brief enquiry regarding health and any injury issues. At this time of year blood tests may be performed, specifically looking at any Vitamin D deficiency that may have developed over the course of the winter. Clubs are very good at managing this generally, and it is now rare to find that a player has the deficiency.

The team will be together 24/7 for the next few weeks. Nutrition is important and there should be a good balance in the diet, especially with the correct protein and fruit and vegetable intake.

Hygiene is vital when dirty and sweaty bodies are mixing, especially at a time when there are many viral injuries in the community. Washing hands before eating and even reducing shaking hands can help reduce viral spread.

The key message is work hard, take the correct fuel, early reporting of any injury or illness and recover well between sessions.

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(Dr Phil Batty with Courtney Lawes during England’s Six Nations visit to Paris in 2014)

Here at Slumberland we know the importance of sleep as a part of a healthy lifestyle. How much sleep do you recommend to athletes for the ultimate performance?

For a player, being in the England camp is the greatest honour and most exciting time of their professional life. Nonetheless, it is physically and mentally demanding to prepare for test matches. There is demanding training, coaching and video analysis of sessions and forthcoming opponents.

Sleep is vital and possibly the most important aspect of recovery. Individuals vary in their sleep requirements and this is monitored by daily well being questionnaires that record the player’s perception of their sleep and wellness. It is not always a matter of the amount of sleep, but the quality of the sleep. This can be challenging when travelling to make sure the beds are large enough for some of the huge players!

 

We can definitely understand how the quality of your bed can affect your sleep. Slumberland mattresses are made with Affinity™ Foam, which is 30x more breathable than memory foam, so even well built rugby players will have a regulated body temperature for uninterrupted sleep.

If these players are sleeping badly, how will tiredness impact their body when in training?

It is very clear from my experience that a player will feel sluggish and suboptimal if they do not have their own sleep requirements and if this is sustained it will have an effect on match day performance and decision making. Sleep disturbance is a common issue for the doctor working in the camp. Rugby demands courage and commitment, but as Vince Lombardi said “fatigue makes cowards of us all”.

One of the challenges of playing matches away is that the team will usually spend the two previous nights in a different hotel and bed, and this is possibly an additional disadvantage for the away team.

Sleeping on a different bed to normal can affect the quality of your sleep, especially if it doesn’t offer you the correct support, which is why Slumberland mattresses come in three support levels, so you can find the comfort level to perfectly suit you.

 

As you must know first-hand, Rugby Union injuries can be punishing – do people underestimate the role that sleep plays in the recovery process?

I am always mindful that if a treatment compromises sleep, it possibly will do more harm than good! It is well known that sleep is an important part of recovery from injury. It is important to get pain under control in order to facilitate that recovery and help the heeling process. Players are anxious at the time of injury and it is important to reassure them when you can in order that they do not lie awake worrying. There are many times I have sent a player to bed early and his pain and swelling have been hugely improved.

Sleep is so important in recovery from concussion, a common rugby injury of increasing concern, and the return to play protocol is often prolonged if the player cannot rest and sleep.

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(Dr Phil Batty with colleague Marco Zanobbi in Harley Street Clinic)

What are the optimum training hours you recommend to make sure athletes get the most from their bodies after a night’s sleep, but also making sure they are still able to wind down again before the evening?

I don’t think there is a set formula regarding training. It depends on the sport and current performance of the team! The coach has to set his priorities for the team and the training is always heavier at the start of the week and tapers towards match day. There needs to be a mix of training to include rugby specific work and strength and conditioning. The important issue is to ensure there is sufficient recovery between the sessions and the training is at the right time of the day following sleep. It is counterproductive in my view to do heavy weight training straight from getting out of bed as a player should have been up and about and have appropriate nutrition.

There is always a challenge following games as to what is the best recovery for the most physically demanding day. This can also be difficult depending on the time of kick off. Players rarely sleep well after a night game and my preference is to try to travel that night if possible and get players back into their own beds in order that they will sleep better

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Dr Batty left England rugby in 2014 and has since been a Consultant Sports Physician at the Isokinetic Clinic in London, which is a FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence, offering world-class treatment for sports professionals.

Find out more about the Isokinetic Clinic.

Dr Batty knows the importance of a good nights sleep, and trusts his Slumberland mattress to help provide this.

 

(Header image credit: Paolo Bona / Shutterstock.com)

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