Last updated: 04/11/2016
In bed with the sleep guru to the stars. He has helped everyone to get a decent kip, from Laura Trott to Cristiano Ronaldo. Hannah Betts The Times October 20 2016 Hannah Betts with the sleep expert Nick Littlehales
I am in a rage. It is a slow rage, devoid of energy — fuelled, as it is, by a fitful four and a half hours’ sleep — and could easily transform into tears of wretchedness. Yet for now it’s a rage: smouldering, suppurating, clotted with expletives.
The object of my fury is Nick Littlehales, an esteemed sleep coach to the sporting elite and author of the latest guide to getting a good night’s rest. As an insomniac I have many issues with this book, all of them based on my being a complete nut job.
First, there is the sporting element. Clients including as Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott may cut the mustard with some, but I’m afraid my attitude is: “Infantilised jocks with no lives.”
Second, there is the routine aspect. Littlehales proposes rest — sorry, “recovery” — periods, scheduled according to sleep cycles. I resist the maths as hotly as I dismiss the idea of structure, both likely to drive insomniacs such as myself to hysteria.
Third, I really don’t like being told what to do, which, as you can imagine, is rather the point. Alas, when he turns up, Littlehales is an extremely amiable chap — funny, interesting and not in the least bit bossy, making it tragically impossible to hate him. And, of course, it was never Nick I detested, but myself, faced with another night, week, year of jagged unrest.
“I mean, it begins to drive you quite mad,” I confess, eye twitching. “Of course it does,” he soothes, his face radiating a messianic benevolence. “But there are things that we can do — really, Hannah.”
Even for someone as annoying as me? “Even for someone as annoying as you.”
Nick maintains napping can be done with eyes open, in meetings
Born in Birmingham, Littlehales is a spry 56, with a third grandchild on the way. He started life as a salesman, before being elevated to international sales and marketing director for the bed company Slumberland.
A letter to the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in the late Nineties inquiring as to the team’s sleep science — then nil — led to him becoming the squad’s first “sleep coach”, a term coined by the press, which enjoyed fantasies about pampered players being tucked in at night.
In fact, it was the beginning of a more technical approach to sport that took in the sciences of sleep, nutrition, physiotherapy and the like, to generate the marginal gains that could make all the difference to performance. Witness British Cycling becoming so unbeatable that lesser countries accuse us of foul play.
Man United players introduced Littlehales to the England squad, and there ensued a 20-year career advising the stars of the football field and the velodrome, of rugby, cricket, rowing, sailing, bobsleigh, archery and BMX — plus consultancies with companies as diverse as Unilever and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Littlehales refers to his method as the R90 system. The R stands for “recovery”, because that sounds like a more active and athletic process than the passive “sleep”, while the 90 refers to the duration in minutes of a sleep cycle (also a football match, which played well with the jocks).
“Humans have used five major sleep-wake cycles,” he tells me. “Four of these have been polyphasic — sleeping multiple times over a 24-hour period à la hunter-gatherers or farmers — and only one monophasic — our current, one-block approach, introduced with the advent of artificial light. And yet, our world, and our bodies’ natural rhythms, are far better suited to the polyphasic approach.”
Accordingly, our hero maintains that we should stop thinking about sleep in terms of hours, and instead perceive it in 90-minute cycles of, say, 35 a week. Then, if we miss out on a couple of cycles, we can catch up via napping, or “controlled recovery periods”, in chunks of 90 or 30 minutes.
The Olympic cyclist Laura Trott is one of Littlehales’s clients.
Littlehales loves napping, which he maintains can be achieved with one’s eyes open, during meetings, a time-out he achieves by manipulating a special pebble in his pocket. This strikes me as the kind of activity that might get one thrown out of the average meeting.
He also supplies his clients with a series of boy’s toys tailored to meet their needs. First up is the Valkee HumanCharger, a tiny, iPod-like headset created by Finnish geeks to beam light into your ears in 12-minute spurts, inducing an instant serotonin boost. I want one, badly.
Oxygen-rich nasal breathing is healthier than mouth breathing, so he also has with him the Rhinomed Turbine, a device that is inserted into the nose to inflate the nostrils. It has a peculiarly porcine effect, and terrifies me so much that I stop breathing altogether and start to pass out.
Finally, he brandishes a tube of SleepQ+. "It’s a lip gel used by athletes who don’t want to tape their mouths to eliminate mouth breathing. It creates stickiness every time the lips come together.” He demonstrates.
The other tools of his trade are less hi-tech. Tart cherry capsules chock-full of melatonin; and potassium, magnesium and tryptophan hits in the form of the “banana tea craze”. (Me neither. Google it, and remember you heard it here first.) Balancing one’s caffeine at a steady 400mg, rather than spending the day bingeing and crashing, has also proved invaluable to sporting types.
Punters love to dwell on these tricks, including Littlehales building futuristic “sleep pods” for the players — actually machine-washable, sleeping bag-cum-mattresses, available for £695 on his website. However, he maintains that the heart of what he does is “basic education”, given that we all know so little about so fundamental a process.
I seize my opportunity. “Some of us know a lot about sleep,” I wail. “Too much! And this focus on cycles and structure is likely to make us froth-mouthed maniacs even more neurotic. This kind of thing may work with the steroidal man babies you’re used to dealing with, but it could never do the trick with the sleep deprived. This is the sportification of sleep, of life, of everything!”
I’m an extreme owl and I’m partnered with an extreme lark.
He lets me grind to a drooling halt, with a passing chuckle over “man babies”. “I know you hate consistency, but the point of the R90 system isn’t routine. It’s a balance between things you can do to improve and becoming completely obsessed. The structure is there, but then it fades away and frees you up. This can work for the impulsive and irreverent too. OK, you’re a classic owl, so say you set a daily wake time of 9.30am, with an earlier slot of 8am where necessary. Then you count back in cycles: 6.30, 5.00, 3.30, 2.00, 12.30. So, ideally, you’d start your 90-minute wind-down at 11pm, be asleep by 12.30am, then up at 8am or 9.30, and start work an hour and a half later.
“And the wind-down and wind-up doesn’t mean doing nothing. It’s your time so you can eat, hydrate, chat to friends, or go to the gym — just so long as you don’t expect to start fully functioning.” I sense I’m losing the argument here.
“OK, but I’m an extreme owl, partnered with an extreme lark whose wake time is 6.30am. Are we doomed?” A look crosses Littlehales’s face that suggests that the answer to this question is: “Very much so, yes.” Still, he perseveres: “Then you compromise and both get up at 8am. He can make breakfast when you’re tired, you can make dinner when he’s whacked, and both of you can compensate with naps.” A thought occurs to me: “Wait, are you napping now? He declines to answer.
The R90 advocates cheaper mattresses replaced often, rather than the blow-out-every-decade-or-so approach. Indeed, he demonstrates that my lovely expensive model is no use at all, as it fails to let my body sink down into it, leaving my neck painfully unaligned. It is a fault that can be corrected with strategic use of 5 and 7cm toppers of the sort that he sells on his website, or spare duvets. Littlehales cradles my face in his palm to demonstrate the correct spinal arrangement, and — maybe it’s the foetal position he has put me into, or maybe it’s the man himself — finally, I feel able to submit.
Sleep by Nick Littlehales published by Penguin on October 27, £9.99, www.sportsleepcoach.com
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