Whether you’re a student-athlete superstar or the mayor of your local gym, chances are your performance on the field, court or treadmill could be influenced by the way you sleep. So for this installment of Ask Stanford Med, we’ve asked Cheri Mah, a researcher with the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, to respond to questions on sleep and athletic performance. Below are her answers, along with some tips to help you get the most out of your nightly slumber. We hope this will help you consider which of your own sleep practices are working, and what you might want to reconsider.
Michelle asks: Can you give a summary of your research to date showing that sleep might help athletes? And what kind of studies are you working on now?
For past few years, William Dement, MD, PhD, and I have been studying the impact of sleep extension on the athletic performance in elite athletes. My interest in specifically studying sleep duration and sleep quality in athletes stems from a study in 2002. By chance, several Stanford swimmers were in our study, and although we weren’t investigating athletic performance, they mentioned that they had set several personal records in their last swim meet!
Over subsequent years, we’ve examined the impact of sleep extension across many sports at Stanford including basketball, football, tennis, and swimming to compare similarities and differences across sports. Our findings from men’s basketball published in 2011 indicate that several weeks of sleep extension improves reaction time, mood, levels of daytime sleepiness, and specific indicators of athletic performance including free throws, 3 point field goals, and sprint time. These findings suggest that sleep duration is likely an important component of peak performance.
Additionally, our study suggests that significantly reducing an accumulated sleep debt from chronic sleep loss may require more than one night or weekend of recovery sleep. Although sleep is frequently overlooked and often the first to be sacrificed, sleep duration and sleep quality should be important daily considerations for athletes aiming to perform at their best.
Currently, we’re continuing our research on sleep extension and examining the impact on different aspects of performance in various sports. We’re also investigating the habitual sleep habits and patterns of elite athletes. Since each sport has it’s own unique culture and training, we’re interested in examining the similarities as well as differences across sports among the Stanford student-athlete population.
Emily asks: What sort of sleep-related work have you done with Stanford athletes over the years? What kind of feedback have you gotten from the students?
Aside from research, I’ve worked over the years with various teams and athletes at Stanford to help improve and optimize their sleep and recovery.
For many athletes, it’s their first time diving deep into the impact of sleep on performance – they had never before focused on their sleep as an important component of their daily training beyond being told to “get a good night of sleep” before a game or competition. Many of the athletes I work with are surprised at the difference sleep can have on their training, performance, and even schoolwork! For many, it’s their first experience having a strategic approach to optimizing sleep and tracking their progress through a season. It’s often only in hindsight – after they’ve significantly reduced their sleep debt over several weeks – that many athletes realize they were operating at a sub-optimal level. Additionally, athletes often realize after extending their sleep that they need more hours of sleep than they previously thought to perform at their best. Some athletes have gone on to play at the professional level and have even been advocates of the importance of sleep on sports performance.
Several coaches have been quite interested in improving sleep and recovery in their team. They’re often aware that their athletes aren’t properly rested and thus have been interested in both educating their athletes and implementing strategies to improve their team’s recovery. Some coaches have also consulted me on their travel schedules to minimize jet lag and optimize performance on the road.
Dr. Dement and I are also part of the Stanford Performance Enhancement Alliance, which serves Stanford athletes through a multidisciplinary approach to sports performance.
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