By Kyle Garratt
Athletes are constantly tinkering with their nutrition and training plans to gain an edge. But a study performed by Stanford University researchers suggests that good old fashioned sleep, and plenty of it, may help an athlete's performance as much as anything.
Student-athletes at Stanford University have been experimenting with a potentially significant performance enhancer. They're not reaching for a needle or pills, but rather hitting the pillow--getting as much as 11 hours of sleep a night. According to a research abstract presented at the 2009 SLEEP Conference, Stanford women's tennis players who extended their nightly sleep improved performance over the course of the 10-week study on a number of drills conducted after each practice.
Average time on a sprinting drill fell from a baseline level of 19.12 seconds to 17.56 after increasing sleep. The players also performed better in drills that measured hitting accuracy and depth at the end of the study than they did in the beginning. The study is ongoing and researchers have also observed the men's basketball and swimming teams over the past four years.
"There has been a lot of research on sleep deprivation and its negative effects on reaction time, and physical and cognitive performance," says the study's lead author Cheri Mah, MS, researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory. "We wanted to look at the flip side. We've seen some initial work with non-athletes and we do see improvements in their cognitive performance. I thought, 'Why would we not also see it manifest itself in a physical way?'"
Five team members between ages 18 and 21 kept their normal sleep habits for the first two to three weeks of the study, which took place during the tennis season. They then increased their nightly sleep to 10 to 11 hours for the remainder of the study. Each player also reported decreased levels of daytime sleepiness and general fatigue while experiencing increased vigor and improved mood.
"We wanted to observe the athletes over a fairly long period," says Mah. "Some of the more intense tournaments and games happen towards the end of the season. But that sometimes coincides with a drop in your energy and you get really tired.
"So it's not just one night or one week of really good sleep, which is what most athletes have been told up to this point," continues Mah. "If you really want to see the biggest change in your performance, it's something you are going to have to prioritize in your training regimen just as much as nutrition, workouts, recovery, and strength training."
Mah said almost none of the athletes in her studies received information about healthy sleep habits while participating in high school or collegiate athletics. And while it would seem easier to convince an athlete to grab some extra sleep than extra wind sprints, changing routines can be difficult.
"For some, extra sleep cuts out time in their social lives or other areas they have prioritized," says Mah. "I know that ten hours of sleep sounds ridiculous for the average person. It's a pretty extreme suggestion, so I recommend sleeping a half hour or hour more each night consistently, and that will start to make a difference."
Mah also recommends getting athletes on a regular schedule of falling asleep and waking at the same times every day, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bed time. She also reminds athletes not to fall asleep while watching the television or a computer, as the light disrupts sleep cycles. But the biggest barrier for proper sleep hygiene is a lack of experience and education.
"We found that these college students thought they were getting adequate sleep and operating at a decent level, but it wasn't the level they realized they could achieve after the study," says Mah. "It's hard because you're not able to perceive the difference until you actually experience something else. To some extent we are all sleep deprived, so what we may perceive as our best, may not truly be our peak performance."
Mah will continue the study for at least another year and hopes athletic trainers can relay the importance of getting adequate shut-eye. "The athletes we worked with knew that more sleep is better for them, but they don't realize how much of a difference it can make until the tenth week," she says. "I'm not sure how to make sure that message gets to them, but my hope is that we can give them hard evidence that speaks for itself. When we can show there is statistically different performance from the beginning to the end of the study, that's huge for any sport. Sports that involve reaction time come down to fractions of a second. So saying, 'You can shave off x-amount of hundredths or tenths of a second,' will have an impact."
For tips on explaining sleep's many physical and mental benefits, check out The ZZZ Factor, by Art Horne, MEd, ATC, CSCS, Associate Director of Sports Medicine and Strength and Conditioning Coach for men's basketball at Northeastern University.
Kyle Garratt is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org