UPDATED: July 20, 2012
Recent studies suggest that sleep is just as important to athletes’ training schedules as nutrition and physical practice, and can make a difference in peak performance.
What do studies show?
A 2011 study published in the journal SLEEP looked at 11 healthy basketball players at Stanford University. For two to four weeks the players were asked to get between six and nine hours of sleep per night, then for next five to seven weeks, to aim for 10 hours of sleep per night. During the study the players abstained from caffeine and alcohol and took daytime naps when 10 hours a night was not possible. The results showed that after getting more sleep, the players ran faster, improved shooting accuracy and experienced decreased fatigue levels. The players ran faster 282-foot sprints, improving the time from 16.2 seconds to 15.5 seconds, and increased free throw percentages by 9 percent and 3-point shot percentages by 9.2 percent. The players also reported improved performance during practice and games.
Researchers said the players likely caught up on the sleep debt they had been experiencing prior to the extended sleep hours, and that prioritizing sleep over an extended period of time-- rather than just the night before a game--is critical for peak performance.
[SLIDESHOW: 5 Health Issues that Arise from Sleep Deprivation]
How much is needed to get the benefits?
According to an ESPN.com article by Zach McCann, athletes such as Roger Federer and LeBron James say they sleep 12 hours per day, and other athletes, such as Usain Bolt, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Steve Nash have said they sleep 10 hours per day. Basketball players are also known to take up to 3-hour naps before games. For the average person, getting between 7 to 9 hours a night has been found to boost memory and mood, but sleep experts stop short of saying it would result in improvements at the gym, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
How does lack of sleep negatively affect athletes?
Two recent studies that were presented at the SLEEP 2012 conference looked at a link between professional football and baseball players’ longevity and their degree of daytime sleepiness. The football study looked at 55 college players who were drafted to play in the NFL. They found that players who were more tired during the day had a 38 percent chance of staying with the team that originally drafted them, whereas 56 percent of the less tired athletes stayed with the original team.
In the baseball study researchers looked at the sleepiness of 40 randomly selected MLB players and found that those who said they were tired during the day had attrition rates of 57 percent to 86 percent, which is significantly higher than the MLB averages of 30 to 35 percent. Researchers said that correcting underlying sleep issues could prolong a pro-athlete’s career, and measuring player sleepiness also could be a useful tool in determining who will be a productive player.
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What are athletes doing to improve sleep?
As technology advances, athletes have access to more tools and devices aimed at optimizing their performance. One way some athletes are doing this is by using sleep tracking devices, such as the Zeo Sleep Manager. Andrew Ference, a defenseman for the Boston Bruins and Jarrod Shoemaker, a tri-athlete and 2008 Olympian, use the Zeo every night to check their sleep and boost perfomance in training and competitions/games. The Zeo works by sensor to measure the electrical signals of the brain while asleep. It stores and organizes all the data and presents the user with a graph and sleep score in the morning.
"Sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise," says Ference, "it's just another piece of the puzzle to give you an edge over someone else."
Ference says though he wasn't using the Zeo when he won the Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 2011, he did make changes to his sleep routine from the last time he was in the Stanley Cup Final with the Calgary Flames in 2004, when they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He says in the 2004 Finals, all he could think about was winning, and the anticipation and nerves got to him, which caused poor sleep.
"I knew why I felt awful in the games," he says, "So the second time around sleep is something I really focused on."
He says listening to NPR podcasts helped him fall asleep early. But ever since July 2011, Ference has been hooked on the Zeo. He says he is "a real numbers guy" and not only likes to see data during his training, but is competetive with himself to get the best sleep score possible.
In Jarrod Shoemaker's case, traveling overseas for competitions and adjusting to the time zones proved to be hard on his sleep and performance. Now, he says he is careful to check his deep sleep number in the morning.
"When my deep sleep decreases below an hour and 10 minutes, that's when my body begins to feel it," he says.
Currently in Germany for a competition, Jarrod says he's sleeping 11 to 11 and a half hours and posting 122 sleep scores on the Zeo. "The more sleep you get, the better you are going to feel."
Both Ference and Shoemaker agree that the quest for a good sleep score fuels their competitive nature.
"It's fun to be competitive," says Shoemaker. But, "People shouldn't expect to be getting a score of 120 like Jarrod," says Ference laughing.
Another way athletes are choosing to optimize their sleep is through the use of high-altitude sleeping chambers. Olympics gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps sleeps in a chamber that creates air equivalent to 8,500 to 9,000 feet, according to The Baltimore Sun. The idea is that the chamber’s low oxygen environment causes Phelps’ body to work harder while sleeping, which he claims improves his performance in the water.
For the average person looking to improve their sleep or athletic performance, a sleep chamber—they can cost up to $15,000-- is probably out of the question. And if a Zeo, at $99, feels a bit steep, there are several apps available that will track your sleep in a similar way. The Sleep Cycle app is one example, which tracks and analyzes sleep patterns and then wakes you at the lightest sleep phase to help you feel more rested.
Allday, Erin. (July 4, 2011). “Stanford athletes sleep for better performance.” SFGate. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/07/03/MN421K50NQ.DTL
Brandt, Michelle. (July 1, 2011). “Snooze you win? It's true for achieving hoop dreams, says study.” Stanford School of Medicine. Retrieved from http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2011/july/sleep.html
McCann, Zach. (June 1, 2012). “Sleep tracking brings new info to athletes.” ESPN.com. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/blog/playbook/tech/post/_/id/797/sleep-tracking-brings-new-info-to-athletes
Nordqvist, Christian. (2012, June 18). "Sleep Patterns Influence Pro-Athletes' Career Span." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/246717.php.
Rosen, Jill. (May 7, 2012). “Michael Phelps and his high-altitude sleeping chamber.” The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-05-07/features/bal-michael-phelps-bed-20120507_1_michael-phelps-chamber-high-altitude