Sleep scientists are increasingly placing the blame for bad sleep habits on modern technology. The fact is, screen time may be hurting your training.

A 2015 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour suggests screen time in the two hours before bed may be to blame for missing out on a good night’s sleep. One of the authors, sleep researcher Dr. Brandy Roane, spoke with World Rowing from her home in Texas, USA.

“Sleep onset can impact quality of functions in the real world,” says Roane. Getting exposure to light later at night can cause a delay in the production of melatonin, a hormone naturally produced by the body during the night to help regulate the sleep cycle.

“Light is an anti-melatonin agent,” says Roane. “We know from other studies that the backlight on most electronic devices is often bright enough to push off the production of melatonin.” Even if melatonin is produced, the stimulation of the light from the screen and the activity itself can cause someone to stay awake.

“Even if you feel sleepy,” continues Roane, “you’ll force yourself to stay awake to check Facebook or send an email.” The light is a factor too. “We turn lights on when we want to stay awake. If we are looking up one more thing, we usually aren’t looking in a book like we traditionally used to.”

Settling down for a good night’s sleep

The study found that how screen time was being engaged in was just as important as how much. It seems that getting to sleep comes down to what Roane and her colleagues call the ‘engrossment factor’; the extent to which someone is likely to engage in a single activity for an extended period of time. This can be particularly disruptive for gamers, who often become entrenched in a game for several hours at a time.

Regardless of what factors cause a delay in getting to sleep, “if you can’t adjust your bedtime because of (rowing) practice the next day, you’ll have insufficient sleep.” All of this can be problematic for athletes since it impacts proper recovery and has the potential for health risks, not to mention effects on performance.

There is a strong link between sleep and the body’s natural circadian rhythm that dictates the recurring pattern of physiological changes within us all throughout the day. “Disruptions in circadian rhythm will impact athletic performance, especially for athletes who wake up early like rowers,” says Roane.

Having a regular sleep schedule may also help you stay lean. “If there is a lot of variability in total sleep time,” says Roane, “people are more inclined to gain weight and not necessarily good weight” – an important consideration for lightweight rowers.

Lack of sleep may also affect injury rate, says Roane, through lack of recovery and changes in the sensation of pain, which is hard to fix.  “It’s not about catching up,” she says, “you can’t catch up on the inability to recover because you got extra sleep. When we don’t sleep well, we don’t feel pain the same way and are more likely to be injured.”

Sleep in on your day off? …  think again

For many athletes, sleeping in on their day off is looked forward to with anticipation. As amazing as that sleep-in feels at the time, however, you could be making a big mistake by staying in bed for more than an hour longer than usual. According to Roane, the time we wake up each morning sets our clocks for the day and when it varies it can disrupt the circadian rhythm.

Roane calls this phenomenon social jet lag. “We get jet lag when we travel time zones. What it is at its core is a biological disruption.” It takes the body two or three days to realign its circadian rhythm to a new time zone.

“Most people feel that Mondays are awful, not because it is Monday,” Roane says, “but because they give themselves jet lag and they have to travel back to their original time zone that their body is out of sync.”

Forming good habits

“Most people grumble about having to wake up early on their day off,” says Roane, “but a lot of it is preparing yourself to wake up and getting ready for bed at a regular time that is important.” Setting up a reward for adhering to a set schedule is one thing she suggests.

“If you like to watch your shows,” she says, “that’s fine. On the weekend, when everyone else is sleeping, wake up and watch your shows.” This applies to other computer use as well. “It is a matter of looking at what is in your schedule that can be flipped around and making sure you can get to bed when you need to.”

Coaches can play a significant role in encouraging good sleep habits by talking about it with athletes. “It’s about figuring out individual sleep needs,” says Roane. “Work with your athletes to develop good habits; have rules in place that are going to help them get to bed at a good time and get enough sleep for the next morning.”

During the taper for competitions or prior to travel across time zones is also a good place to start adjusting practice times so that the athletes are gradually getting used to waking up at the time they will on race day. The effects of a sudden change in wakeup time are the same in competition as on a day off.

As with most good habits, it is best to start forming a sleep routine early on in an athlete’s career. From losses in performance ability to potentially unhealthy weight gain to increased risk of injury due to changes in pain perception, there are some strong reasons to shut off the smart phone well before climbing into bed for the night. The good news for the rest of us: it’s never too late to start.