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Olympian Gabby Thomas (above) says learning to prioritize sleep helped her improve her performance as an athlete and a student. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
  • Two-time Olympic gold medalist runner Gabby Thomas says learning to prioritize sleep helped her excel mentally and physically.
  • Thomas teamed up with the Seize the Night & Day campaign to help others prioritize quality sleep.
  • Insomnia includes difficulty falling asleep or maintaining sleep, as well as waking up earlier than the desired wake-up time.

Exercise and nutrition are a big part of training for Olympian sprinter Gabby Thomas.

However, she said sleep takes just as much priority. Over the past 10 years, sleep became a foundational factor in keeping herself fit for competing at the highest level.

“When you’re younger, you’re looking at the obvious things that you need to be focusing on, and as an athlete that’s primarily the exercise and the training on that day, and it’s kind of this very in-the-moment focus,” Thomas told Healthline.

During her teen years, she learned if she didn’t get quality sleep, she wouldn’t train as effectively and it mattered less what nutrition she put in her body.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today as a gold medalist if I hadn’t learned that,” she said.

Thomas leaned on her track and field coach at Harvard University, the doctors whom she received care from, and tapped into her degree in neurobiology and global health to gain an understanding.

“[Sleep is] something that I was curious about,” she said. “One of the best things that I did for myself at an early age in the sport is getting informed on it.”

Figuring out a sleep routine also helped her as a student and every day since. She makes it a point to start winding down at about 8:00 pm.

“I have a whole routine that I look forward to that gets me excited for rest and sleep,” said Thomas.

She typically makes tea, cuddles up with her dog, turns off the TV, and reads a book for a while. Then she meditates and writes in a journal.

“[I do] something that gets me relaxed and [gets] my mind not working so much because there’s so much going on throughout the day. Then I go to bed,” Thomas said.

To spread the word about sleep health to others, Thomas teamed up with the Seize the Night & Day campaign to help others prioritize quality sleep. The program offers community support and resources for people experiencing sleep difficulties.

“So many Americans and so many people don’t get adequate sleep just because they’re not informed. They don’t know how to incorporate it into their lives or their day-to-day, especially for younger people where society has the expectation [that you should] be out at night,” Thomas said.

Thomas does stay up past 8:00 pm on occasion but said it’s all about balance.

“Olympic athletes do like to have fun too. I don’t like to be too hard or too strict on myself,” she said. “Getting sleep and rest is not a source of anxiety for me. It’s something that I figured out how to work into my life and makes me happy. Sometimes I don’t stick to those times on the dot, but it’s a goal and what I aim for.”

Dayna A. Johnson, PhD, sleep epidemiologist and assistant professor at Emory University, said the no-sleep culture is toxic. While there is a tendency to glamorize lack of sleep, she said success is tied to sleep.

“Getting sleep is not lazy. Sleep is vital for our overall health, and adults should be sleeping at least 7 hours per night, based on the latest recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine,” Johnson told Healthline.

Long-term insomnia is associated with numerous serious health conditions, such as psychiatric disorders, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, substance misuse, and dementia, she added.

Plus, the idea that your body can get used to functioning on less sleep is a misconception.

“Many people believe if they don’t get enough sleep, they can make it up by napping, but this is not a good idea – especially for people with insomnia,” Johnson said.

Sleeping a lot could also be a sign of a sleep disorder, but not laziness, she noted.

“Sleeping longer than 9 hours on average is associated with poor health outcomes, and should be discussed with your doctor,” she said.

To help clarify sleep needs, Thomas wants others to feel empowered to seek out sleep health information.

“The start of my sleep journey was getting informed and figuring out what works for me and I would encourage everyone to do the same. As an Olympic athlete and a public health advocate…I would love to see everyone prioritizing their own overall health, and sleep is such an important part of that.”

Insomnia affects many people in the United States.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that 30 to 35% of people have brief symptoms, 15 to 20% experience a short-term insomnia disorder (lasting less than three months), and 10% have a chronic insomnia disorder (occurring at least three times per week for at least three months).

While insomnia is often thought of as difficulty falling asleep,it can also be characterized by difficulty maintaining sleep, or waking up earlier than the desired wake-up time.

“It ought to be associated with some kind of consequence, which could be feeling sleepy during the day or impaired concentration impacting the quality of life in some shape or form,” Dr. Harneet Walia, director of sleep medicine and continuous improvement at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, told Healthline.

If you’re concerned about your sleep, Walia suggested keeping track of the following and sharing it with your doctor:

  • Your sleep times during the week and weekends on days you’re working and not working
  • Wake-up times during the week and weekends on days you’re working and not working
  • The amount of time it takes to fall asleep, reasons it’s taking so long to fall asleep, and how long you’re staying in bed trying to fall asleep
  • How many awakenings you have in the middle of the night and why you have the awakenings
  • How you feel during the day (tired, sleepy, drowsy while driving, unable to concentrate, etc.)
  • What you think your internal body clock is (i.e., do you prefer to stay up later and sleep in later or do you prefer to go to sleep early and rise early?)
  • Whether you snore, stop breathing while sleeping, or experience any unusual behaviors in your sleep like restless leg syndrome or a creepy crawly feeling on the body

“People can monitor these habits with sleep logs and variable device data can sometimes come in handy for a doctor to make an assessment,” said Walia.

Walia says habits that can help you get a good night’s sleep can include:

  • Creating a bedtime routine, such as winding down by reading a book or taking a shower
  • Going to sleep and waking up at the same time consistently
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol close to sleep time
  • Turning off electronics an hour before bed
  • Exercising several hours before bedtime
  • Avoiding late naps
  • Trying not to worry about falling asleep
  • Making your bedroom cool and dark
  • Only using the bed for sleep and sex

When habits are not enough to help with sleep issues, Walia said treatments or interventions may be needed.

For instance, for those who can’t fall asleep because they ruminate and worry a lot, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can be helpful. The therapy helps to restructure thoughts and behaviors.

People who have difficulty maintaining sleep may have sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, which could require losing weight, avoiding sleeping on the back, and other therapies, while those with restless leg syndrome may need to take medications, said Walia.

For those who wake up earlier than the desired bedtime, they may have an internal body clock that is wired to do so.

“We sort of have to take into account the entire clinical situation and a comprehensive sleep evaluation often helps us determine the next best steps,” Walia said.