Granit Xhaka is a true marathon man, often running more than almost anyone else in soccer’s English Premier League for his London-based club, Arsenal. The 25-year-old midfielder covered 7.6 miles during one game last year. All that running up and down the field (not to mention headers, tackles, and kicks) means Xhaka’s body requires not only fitness, but rest and recovery. And as Xhaka suits up to represent his home country of Switzerland in its World Cup opener Sunday against mighty Brazil, he’ll need all the rest he can get.
To do that, Xhaka has become a sleep science guinea pig of sorts. Under Armour, the US-based sporting apparel company that sponsors him, has probed and prodded Xhaka to find out what makes him tick when he’s not on the field.
There are the basics, of course: The company has analyzed his sleep habits and waking habits right before he goes to bed. UA trainers also gave Xhaka a new, more comfortable mattress and changed the lightbulbs in his London flat to ease his journey to slumber. He’s even got special glasses that allow him to post pictures to his fans on Instagram or read up on his opponents without succumbing to the stimulation of blue light.
But they’re also trying some fishy-sounding next-gen tech, like special sleepwear and sheets with ceramic woven into the fabric. The material is supposed to stimulate blood flow and keep sleepers warmer—it supposedly absorbs heat from the body and re-emits it back as far-infrared radiation, and some small studies have shown that ceramic fabrics can help with arthritis and menstrual pain. But the connection with better sleep hasn’t been proven—and at $200 a set, it’s an investment fairly limited to pro athletes.
The idea is to give Xhaka a competitive edge by allowing him a more restful night, even if he’s staying in a backwater Russian hotel. Switzerland and the 31 other World Cup soccer teams will be traveling across four time zones and thousands of miles over the next month. That means players will have to figure out how to sync their biological clocks for travel, training, and matches. As part of his World Cup preparation, Granit is taking a backpack filled with sleep-inducing gear provided by Under Armour—including a sound blocking device, a wireless sleep activity monitor, a mask, special PJs, and even a journal—to help him write down his thoughts and clear his mind when he wakes up.
“We treat our athletes like patients,” says Paul Winsper, Under Armour vice president for athlete performance and a former fitness coach for teams in both the Premier league and Major League Soccer. “We are trying to get them to think about recovery just as important as training.” Under Armour consulted with experts in sleep and elite athlete recovery to find out what areas could be improved the most. Then they visited Xhaka’s London apartment to see the layout of both his bedroom, and the living space where he relaxes before going to bed.
“We are starting to educate the athletes about the importance of consistency of their bedtime,” Winsper says. Xhaka is just one of several Under Armour sponsored athletes—including heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua, who is preparing for a championship bout in September—getting the full monty of sleep treatment. Joshua recently spent several days at Under Armour’s new Portland Innovation Center where trainers tested his motor skills, sleep habits, and gave him some time in one of those egg-shaped napping pods deployed at NASA, Google, and on some college campuses.
In an interview from London through a translator (originally from Albania, Xhaka is more comfortable speaking Swiss-German), Xhaka says he has been experiencing more intense and deeper sleep since he started following the system and using the devices about a month ago. “I get up a lot more calm, and I don’t use my mobile phone until I leave the house,” he says. He gave a pair of the blue-light blocking glasses to his roommate for the World Cup, Switzerland forward Ricardo Rodriguez.
Xhaka just started the sleep program, so we won’t know if it works until there’s more individual data about his performance at the World Cup, and next season at Arsenal. He’s also just one of 11 players on a soccer team. But experts say there’s a connection between a lack of proper sleep and athletic performance. One bad night usually doesn’t make a difference, but the effects of a monthlong tournament of soccer games across Russia will likely add up, according to Shona Halson, a physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport.
Halson says UA talked to her about her studies and how they can use her research, though the company isn’t paying her anything. That kind of arrangement is similar to one between a sleep researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and the 2018 NBA champion Golden State Warriors basketball team.
“We see a decrease in performance and a increased perception of effort,” says Halson, who has studied soccer players, swimmers, and rugby players who don’t get enough sleep. Athletes don’t lose endurance or become less fit, but their brains don’t work as well.
Most elite athletes get less than eight hours a night, Halston says, because of the demands of travel rather than the intensity of a high-level contest. Without enough sleep, “your brain is foggy and you don’t react as fast.” She says sleep inducing devices might help some athletes, as long as they stay off their phones at night. Of course, Halson says there are some athletes who aren’t bothered by all the distractions that come with being a soccer-playing road warrior. To them, rest comes without noise-canceling boxes, bioceramic pajamas, or sleeping pills. If those players ever form a team, watch out.