In Bed With Olympic Gold Medalist Joey Cheek

Dec 07, 2015 | by Adam Tishman

Think your sleep schedule is tough? Imagine that of an Olympic athlete. We caught up with former American Olympic speed skater, Joey Cheek, to learn more about his routine and philosophy when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.

What was your favorite bedtime story as a kid?

My parents had a rule in my house: we had a set bedtime, but if you wanted to read, you could stay up 30 minutes later; I always chose to read.  I was a huge space nerd and although I can’t remember individual titles, I had tons of those books that in addition to stories had really cool artists drawings of the shuttle, the Apollo Program, and satellites, that sort of thing.  There was a very particular style to those drawings and you don’t see them in kids books anymore.

Wait, are there kid’s books anymore?

Do you have a consistent bedtime routine?

When I was competing, absolutely.  I tried to sleep 9 hours/night which was necessary when you’re training seven hours per day.  I was always trying to gain muscle mass so I’d drink a 1000 calorie shake before bed, then spend 10-15 min stretching and finally 10 minutes journaling about my goals for the day.  The entire process took about 35 minutes and I did it nearly every day for about ten years. In the startup world, a regular schedule is tough to keep.  I always try and shut off my computer and phone 30 minutes before bed. I’m a night worrier, so it’s super crucial for me to wind down before crawling into bed.

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What do you do if you can’t sleep?

This is a regular problem for me when I’m stressed.  I was told once that I seemed unflappable – well that’s only at night.  Any big worry that’s on my mind won’t show up until about 3:30am.  If I wake up in the middle of the night with my mind racing I usually try and imagine myself somewhere else on some adventure – it’s kinda weird but it seems to work.

If I really can’t sleep and I lay there tossing and turning for more than 30 minutes I’ll just get up and go into another room and read.  Usually that does the trick.

We all have our tips & tricks. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen an athlete do in order to get a good night’s rest?

Wow… people kinda lose their minds around Olympics time.  You never know how people will handle the pressure.  Probably the most common thing people do, if they have the means, is to get out of the Olympic village.  It’s super exciting to be there, but you’re essentially living in dorms with all of your teammates and there’s always major drama going on – it can be super distracting.

So some of the more established athletes will rent a house near their competition venue.  It’s usually crazy expensive because rent at the Olympics is like Uber on New Years, but if you spent your entire life training for one thirty second race you’d probably not want to leave anything to chance either.

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Tell me about the importance of sleep for an athlete, especially while training for the Olympics.

I can’t tell you enough how essential it is to get TONS of sleep when you’re in hard training.  When you’re training 6 or 7 hours per day you are tearing down your body.  All of your growth and healing happens when you sleep.  You build muscle mass, neuromuscular pathways are laid down, and red blood cells are created – but only when you’re asleep.

There was a recent study of collegiate swimmers who slept less than 7 hours per night for a number of weeks, then ten hours of sleep for the same number of weeks.  In every category: reaction time, turns, speed down the lane, the swimmers improved by tenths of a second when sleeping ten hours/night.  In my sport at the Olympics, the difference between first and 10th is usually about fifteen hundredths of a second.  So getting enough sleep could easily mean the difference between gold and not even cracking the top ten.

When the skates come off, Joey dedicates his time as President of the Save Darfur organization.

Image Sources: @JoeyCheek, Guideposts, Joey Cheek