Training Talk with Dean Benton (Part 1)

After tackling adaptation as last month’s theme, our focus at HMMR Media moves on to rest and recovery in December. To kick things off we sat down with Dean Benton, one of the leading practitioners in this area. Benton is currently head of Sports Science for the England Senior Rugby Team. In this role he is responsible for the co-ordination, design and delivery of athletic performance, sport science, recovery, rehabilitation, reconditioning to the England Senior Rugby team in the lead into the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Benton developed his practices out of necessity. He spent several years with the Brumbies in Super Rugby. For those not familiar with Super Rugby, the league has teams across four continents (Africa, Oceania, Asia, and South America), meaning it has the most difficult travel and recovery demands of perhaps any professional league in the world. Since then Benton has worked as an advisor for several other clubs, performance director for the Melbourne Storm (where he worked when we started this interview), and currently with England Rugby.

» Related content: Become a member to get access to other interviews with top coaches such as Fiji rugby coach John Pryor, Frans Bosch, and many many more.

To start off our conversation we focused on the topic of sleep. Later in the week we’ll post the rest of the conversation where we discuss travel strategies and other recovery topics.

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Part 1: Sleep

Martin: Everyone pays lip service to the importance of sleep, but most of the coaches I know talking about it rarely get enough sleep themselves, which makes me skeptical how much they actually buy in. What are some of the most important reasons to emphasize sleep for our athletes?

Dean: Elite sport coaches are becoming increasingly aware of the connection between sleep, recovery and optimal athletic performance. Such awareness and increased interest by contemporary coaches has been brought about by noticing in athletes signs of sleep deprivation, now called sleep restriction by medical practitioners. Coaches are often faced with tired athletes before the training day has begun. Technological temptations to the current generation of athletes such as iPhones, X-Box, text messaging and even on-line gambling are creating considerable sleep related issues away from the training environment. Use of these or similar devices prior to hours of bedtime or simply resisting the urge to fall asleep can see athletes missing the first inclination to sleep, which then can temporarily make it difficult to fall asleep afterwards.

Artificial light has been available in the industrialized West since at least the mid-19th century. As a result, sleep patterns have changed significantly, particularly in Western culture. However, what has not changed is human biology, and in particular, the circadian rhythm. Technology has not only been a recent problem in its negative effect on sleep practices but also contributing to the problem are Western ‘industrial’ attitudes to sleep, where sleep is seen as unproductive time and for the lazy. In the business world the first causality for poor time management and deadlines is sleep. Some of our best elite sporting coaches would admit they are not immune to sleep problems and Western ‘industrial’ attitudes to sleep.

However, Mediterranean countries and cultures have a very different outlook on sleep. The afternoon siesta is common and respected in these countries. The word siesta is Spanish, from the Latin hora sexta – “the sixth hour” (counting from dawn, therefore noon, hence ‘midday rest’). On a recent trip to Spain, prominent Australian swimming coach, Bill Sweetenham, was amazed to note a lady was actually employed to teach young children how to siesta.

The primary reason as to why sleep is important for athletes is that is essential for health and the optimization of the metabolic, endocrine and immune systems. Importantly, sleep is also the only true countermeasure for fatigue.

Martin: Is sleep just about the quantity? Or are there other elements?

Dean: Unfortunately is it not as simple as an amount of time in bed. Needless to say, quantity is important, but so is quality too. To assess sleep quality the following variables need to be taken into account to establish sleep time and sleep efficiency:

  • Bed time
  • Time to fall asleep
  • Time awake each night
  • Wake-up time

Martin: How does a coach go about actually getting their athletes to sleep more? I mentioned and you’ve mentioned a lot of coaches talk about it, but few do anything about it.

Dean: This is the hard part – putting theory into practice. This is where you come up against cultural and attitudinal barriers when trying to improve sleep practices in athletes. Sport is not immune from society. Older coaches will sometimes resist providing additional sleep opportunities to athletes (i.e. napping) because it is seen as inconvenient. Athletes will sometimes resist buying into improving sleep practices because they perceive it impacts on their social or personal interests. Either way, for both coaches and athletes it comes down to a dilemma of ‘cost vs. investment’. That being seen as a ‘lack of time’ or ‘lack of belief’. However, in reality a ‘lack of time’ is simply a ‘lack of belief’.

Getting athletes to buy in always starts with sleep education, which must be tied into sleep assessment. Aside from the central concept of good recovery practices to ensuring good health, the primary objective is so you can train harder than your opposition! So in periods of hard training, if provided with the right environment and opportunity athletes will happily embrace maximizing the amount of sleep they require. Coaches can take longer to convince, but they soon see the enormous amount of training both in terms of quantity and quality that can be completed on a consistent basis. It is now apparent that sleep assessment is one of a few important metrics in forming a risk assessment profile on an athlete.

Martin: I know you have talked about using technology. I’ll often wear a FitBit, mostly as it gives me a rough estimate of my sleeping trends. It may not be 100% accurate, but it gives me a baseline that I can track and compare. What are your thoughts on the technology in the sleep area?

Dean: To be honest, I don’t think you can compare the commercially available units to what researchers are using in terms of bother hardware and software. Shona Halson at the Australian Institute of Sport has really led the way in recent years with sleep research using Fatigue Science’s technology. The current generation of sleep watches are even better now with a simple ‘on’ and ‘off’ button the can be easily pressed by an athletes prior to sleep and waking. These watches are accompanied by excellent software that produces quite detailed reporting.

Continue reading part two where we discuss travel strategies and other recovery topics.