Interview with Dr. Jonathan Charest

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your research?

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary in the Department of Kinesiology, working on the validation of the athlete sleep screening questionnaire with student-athletes, as well as the impact of prior concussion sleep and its relationship to recovery from a concussion. I’m also working at the center for Sleep and Human Performance in a clinical capacity in Calgary. We see a wide range of people from the general public, to elite athletes, to law enforcement, and to veterans here in Canada.

What led you to sleep as a research topic?

As with a lot of people, just sheer luck. I was doing my undergrad in psychology back in Quebec, and one lab that was recruiting at the time was the Sleep Lab. I thought to myself, “that’s pretty cool, so we’ll probably look at dreams and their meaning.” You know, my mind went to these cool ideas you think about as a younger fella.

Then I ended up in that lab, and I just had a kind of epiphany. This is much more substantial than what I thought sleep was, and it was love at first sight in that lab. I never quit the topic of sleep since then. Then I tried to loop in my first love, which was sports. Now I’m working with sleep and athletes, so I’ve had excellent luck on my side.

That kind of reminds me of my journey a little bit into the sleep world. When I was first hired at Arcascope, I thought I knew about sleep, and then I realized I had absolutely no idea. There was a whole world of sleep topics that were all completely new to me. The field of sleep science is changing so much that it’s a really exciting industry to be part of. So, what are you most excited about when it comes to the connections between sleep and athletic performance?

In North America and Canada (that part of the world), we’re wearing lack of sleep as a badge of honor. You look at those athletes and wonder, “How can they perform to that level?” When you ask some of them about sleep, you sometimes get something completely ludicrous, like waking up at 4 in the morning and doing all these crazy things. The risk is that people are going to look at them and think, “this is what we should do in order to perform well.” 

I believe that sleep should not only have a place, but should have a throne in every team’s approach when it comes to performance. Everything starts with how you slept the previous night and how consistent you can be.

Yeah, definitely. I found it really interesting when you mentioned that people wear their hours of sleep like a “badge of honor”. 

That’s the challenge. I feel that you almost have to “sell” sleep to people. Telling them, “If you don’t sleep well now, you’re going to pay the price down the line. And down the line can mean months, even years.” And as a consequence, people don’t listen. 

I did an interview with Dr. Amy Bender a few months ago, and we kind of got into the topic of traveling athletes for competition and specifically during the Olympics, thinking about those athletes who have to travel through multiple time zones and compete the next day and how that really affects their performance. 

Absolutely. When it comes to traveling, we are still in the infancy of research. What if someone’s a traveling athlete? When can they afford to travel, and when do they actually have to perform? If the athletes don’t have the means and the funding to actually have extra time to fly over in advance, then you could just be setting them up for failure. I believe in working within the reality of a specific athlete, over just applying theory. 

Being multidisciplinary means we have the whole arsenal for athletes. Not only light exposure, coffee, and napping—we do actually have access to medication. I know medication is almost a taboo word in sleep, but it does have its place when it’s used strategically and in a very short term.

Where do you think the field of sleep and performance is heading?

The sleep and performance community is moving a little slower than the data science community. Lots of these advanced stats seen in the major sports are quite impressive. For sleep, I think we are currently where the performance data scientists were probably two years ago. We’re being invited to the table to talk with the coaches and the decision-makers; However, we need to do more than just build a statistical model, we need to translate this model into verbiage that the coach and decision-maker can actually understand and utilize within five minutes. I think sleep is at that tipping point where we are lacking the skills to actually translate what we know into a digestible manner for coaches, teams, and the decision-makers.

It is exciting because I feel like, in recent years, people started to understand what circadian rhythms are. They’re getting more familiar with these sleep terms that we use so often and paying attention to their value.

Definitely. Sleep is surfing a humongous wave right now, and I think it goes with every sport. We’re hearing more about how the preparation before traveling is important. There are more data scientists on board, and more specialized individuals at the table, and these verbiages are entering the reality of sport. 

I think it’s a good thing not only for the sport and athletes themselves, but this will also pave the way for education down the line. I’m referring to young kids, teenagers, and young adults that are looking up to these athletes. If these athletes are taking care of themselves and their sleep, of course, the young athlete will do the same.

What would be your dream data set to analyze?

I would love to see a baseline of sleep from athletes from every type of sport. I’m talking big numbers and seeing what their sleep looks like subjectively, objectively, and everything. I would love to follow them for, let’s say, five years and see who gets a concussion. I want to see who recovers faster and more efficiently than others after experiencing a concussion. I would also love to see who’s not getting concussed. 

I would also love a dataset that can demonstrate if sleep really has a positive impact on performance. Because right now all we have is metric on strength, t-test jump, and plyometric exercises. I don’t think this is representative of a true performance when it comes to these fluid and dynamic sports such as hockey, and basketball. They still remain a proxy to the entire performance. 

I know we touched on circadian rhythms earlier, let’s dig into that a little bit more. How do you think circadian rhythms change people’s behavior, especially when it comes to performance?

The first thing I’m doing with my team is not necessarily looking at how they sleep, but what type of sleeper we are working with here. When it comes to circadian rhythms and performance, I don’t think we should approach someone that has an early bird preference to someone who has a night owl preference. 

I’m thinking about a baseball player, let’s say the starting pitcher. Should he be with the team up until the last day, or should we make him travel in advance? This is where I see circadian rhythm/traveling management making an impact on organizational decision-making in sports. If you know the kind of sleeper they are, what position they’re playing, and when you can utilize them to their best—this is how you would have the biggest impact. So, trying to modify our approach according to the circadian rhythm or the actual chronotype of our athletes is paramount.

So really looking into an individual’s unique circadian rhythms and how they can affect their performance. 

Yeah, definitely. Taking a blanket solution, such as, “get eight to ten hours of sleep because you’re a professional player”. That does not refer to the timing of sleep. We all know that the timing of sleep is as important as how long you sleep. Therefore the timing of sleep for that lark and for that night owl is completely different, even though they have the same recommendation for the length of sleep. And this is, I believe, what’s missing with sports right now, where we’re literally talking about an improvement of 2-3% that will set them apart from their competition every day.

That 2-3% is probably the timing of your sleep. It could be that nap or that coffee you did not take in the afternoon. It could be that Twitter scrolling you’re not doing at 11:00 p.m., or that PS5 that you’re not carrying with you when you’re a rookie player on the road, and so on and so forth. There are so many things to look at when it comes to circadian rhythm and circadian preference and sleep in general.

Is there anything from your research that you’d like us to highlight?

A good friend of mine, Jesse Cook from Wisconsin, and I just finished an article together about sleep and professional athletes.