Nick Littlehales is regarded as the leading elite sports sleep coach in world sport.
A leading industry expert with over 30 years’ experience in the world of sleep, sleeping habits, and product design and over 15 years dedicated to elite athletes and professional sport.
A former professional golfer, International Sales & Marketing Director of the Slumberland Group and Chairman of the UK Sleep Council, Nick has conducted many practical and clinical research projects into the varied sleeping habits adopted by the modern-day sleeper and athlete. His unique and passionate techniques, products and proven approach are endorsed by leading professionals in world sport and business.
Nick talks to me about how he became the world’s leading elite sports sleep coach, how he educated the Manchester United and Arsenal football teams on the importance of sleep, and why he wrote his best-selling book Sleep.
In addition, if you listen to the podcast today you can have access to a very special discount code to purchase the book. All you would need to do is email firstname.lastname@example.org with the code ‘SPACER90’ and they will then provide tan exclusive discount!
What this episode has in store for you
“I found myself in the sleep industry working for an international brand, traveling around and watching how everybody slept – I looked into a lot of clinical research and then set up the very first UK sleep council, trying to educate people in sleep. I realised quite quickly that the underlying factor inhibiting people to think about sleep properly is that it’s not a performance criteria. I never came across anyone who took any notice of it in the clinical world for this reason. Simultaneously, I was working long hours as a sales and marketing director and struggling a lot with sleep. I was never getting 8 hours and struggling with recovery, which was ironic as I was technically in the ‘sleep’ industry.”
“If it hadn’t been for Alex Ferguson, I don’t think any other club or any other sport would have answered my letter, or even engaged in the process I was trying to bring about. It is difficult even now trying to engage people in the process, so back then you can imagine how it difficult it was! I really began to get noticed when the media hanging around outside the training ground started to wonder who I was, as I came in and out of the club. When they realised that I was simply some guy talking about sleep, they simply took the word coach and wrote in the papers that ‘Manchester United’s pampered football players have now got a sleep coach’ – So, I became The Sleep Coach! It wasn’t a profession that existed, as nobody did it. From that moment though, I had to become exactly that, and I began to communicate with the players and find a better way to talk to them about sleep.”
“Following this, the next big moment for me was when Arsene Wenger had just started, who had a completely different managerial approach in every sort of way. As the only ‘elite sports sleep coach’, I had to present to Arsenal’s first team squad in a conference room, and coach them for an hour about sleep, recovery, performance and how I could hopefully help them. There were a few people in the team including players such as Thierry Henry and Cesc Fàbregas who took interest and from that particular point, the word went out that someone was doing something like this with Manchester and Arsenal.
Along that route was the European championships in Portugal with the England squad, where we created sleep kits and took them to the hotel – we put David Beckham in a specific room and went through it with the doctor and Sven Goran Eriksson and we applied something to that whole tournament which was completely different to everybody else.”
“The next significant moment for us was when British cycling was charged to put a British Rider on the Tour de France podium. There were two sides to this – one was to get the whole population cycling, from a health perspective, the other was how were they going to take British cycling from zero to hero. This second point was where I fit in, as it meant they had to look at everything involved in cycling, which necessarily included sleep. As a non-academic, non-clinical person with an approach that could really help in a practical, achievable and non-intrusive way, I was brought into be part of that marginal gains process. And that was the point where I was able to completely explore everything I had learnt, which culminated in sleep kits for all the riders on the tour.
It also happened to be at the same period as the 2012 Olympics, so suddenly people were talking on the TV (Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins etc) about pillows, recovery, sleep kits and the importance of this in their process. Since that point too, another thing that’s really changed is that not only are there a lot of people talking about sleep, but they are doing so because schedules are becoming non-human; people are pushing themselves too hard and taking on addictive habits like caffeine and supplements. We have always taken sleep for granted, as it’s not a performance based criteria so we haven’t needed to educate ourselves on it before. But we are in a world now that’s pushed us too far and we are starting to see all these classic well-being factors – when you look at the statistics in the background, they are quite horrifying and causing detrimental health issues.”
“There is still a massive part of the population in the world of sport who take sleep for granted. We can track sleep through apps and technology, but people really don’t know what to do with the information, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book on Sleep.
“I didn’t write the book to be a self-help book or a ‘change the world’ book – I was asked to write a book about my story and my techniques, which is what I did. Since it came out, it has almost become like the book that educates you. Suddenly, it becomes apparent that the little things you weren’t taught at school or by your parents make such a difference to recovery. And what my book helps to show you is that you not only find out this information but you can do something about this. I am now getting phone calls from every single sport in every single country asking, ‘why have we not done this before’?!”
“In any 24 hours, the human being requires around 30% of those hours to be in some sort of mental and physical recovery state. I.e. Sleep. What happened was, right up until the point of the light-bulb being invented, we would have slept in a polyphasic way – shorter bursts, more often. So, when the light-bulb came along, we shifted from a polyphasic approach to a monophasic approach and just slept at night. We used to get 30% of the 24 hours in harmony with the circadian rhythms sleeping shorter periods at night. It was only when we shifted away from the natural circadian rhythms of the day due to the light-bulb and technology that it began impacting on our recovery periods.
Why do you overheat in the night, get disturbed, or find it hard to sleep for 8 hours straight? It’s because it’s not natural to sleep for 8-hour blocks at a time.
When we tested this with athletes, they thought it was brilliant – they realized we were changing the language. We don’t even mention the word sleep – it’s about mental and physical recovery periods, some of which come in 90-minute cycles back to back, some come 30 minutes at the right time of day – we have total control over it, we don’t waste any invaluable time not doing it. If you attune yourself a little bit better with knowledge of sleep, then you’re sorted.”