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Superathletes sleep more, says Stanford researcher

alarm-clock-146469_640Hit snooze again - it just might boost your performance, Stanford sleep expert Cheri Mah believed. Seems intuitive, yet research findings were needed.

Mah originally tapped Stanford's men's basketball team to test her theory. When the team went from an average of 6.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep a night, they hit 11 percent more free throws and sprinted more quickly. Her work grabbed headlines at the time, and now it's featured in Mark McClusky's  forthcoming book, Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes — and What We Can Learn from Them.

The Atlantic excerpted a key section from the book today; here's McClusky (who also edits Wired.com):

For us humans, sleep is completely crucial to proper functioning. As we've all experienced, we're simply not as adept at anything in our lives if we don't sleep well...

It seems like certain kinds of athletic tasks are more affected by sleep deprivation. Although one-off efforts and high-intensity exercise see an impact, sustained efforts and aerobic work seem to suffer an even larger setback. Gross motor skills are relatively unaffected, while athletes in events requiring fast reaction times have a particularly hard time when they get less sleep.

McClusky goes on to write that Mah’s research "strongly suggests that most athletes would perform much better with more sleep - if they could get it." But it's tricky for top athletes to get enough sleep. Fly across the country, or the world, and your sleep schedule is skewered. And West Coast teams have it particularly hard:

In 2013, the Seattle Mariners flew more than 52,000 miles while the Chicago White Sox, with their central location and nearby division rivals, only flew about 23,000... Bouncing around the country, leaving late, arriving early, having to play the next day—it's no surprise that travel and the management of sleep is a huge problem for athletes.

Some athletes squeeze in an afternoon nap to boost their rest times, McClusky said. And that sounds like a mighty fine idea to me.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Cheri Mah responds to questions on sleep and athletic performance, Expert argues that for athletes, "sleep could mean the difference between winning and losing," Why your sleeping habits may be preventing you from sticking to a fitness routine and A slam dunk for sleep: Study shows benefits of slumber on athletic performance
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