According to Sleeptracker® data, Americans get the least sleep of the year on Super Bowl Sunday. The night we get the second least? The night of the N.C.A.A. football championship. If sports are keeping spectators up at night, imagine what it’s doing to the players.
That’s exactly what Cheri Mah, research fellow at U.C. Human Performance Center and professional sports advisor, sought to find out while working under the famed William Dement at Stanford University. She already knew sleep deprivation could dampen physical and cognitive skills, so she designed a study to determine if the opposite was true: Could getting more sleep at night provide performance benefits during the day?
In Mah’s study on sleep extension, Stanford University’s basketball players demonstrated both psychomotor and mood benefits after getting significantly more sleep than usual. They sprinted faster, reacted quicker, and demonstrated lower levels of fatigue. Longer sleep made a difference on the scoreboard too: they had a 9% accuracy boost with their free throws and three-pointers.
Mah’s breakthrough research made her a hot commodity in the sports world, and now she works for athletes and organizations across the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. We talked to her to find out what it’s like telling stars like Steph Curry, Jeremy Lin, and Andre Iguodala how to sleep better.
TS: How much sleep should athletes aim for?
CM: My colleagues and I recommend that athletes get approximately eight to 10 hours of sleep. Every adult is recommended to get a minimum of seven hours, but elite athletes may need more. And it’s more about chronic habits than small changes the night before they hit the field or court. You can’t wait until the playoffs to care about sleep and recovery. In my opinion, sleep and recover need to be addressed and optimized during the off-season so you have good habits under your belt when sleep challenges inevitably come up throughout the season.
TS: How can athletes minimize the effects of jet lag and ensure their performance peaks at the right time?
CM: Between constant time zone-hopping travel and demanding schedules, athletes face a unique range of challenges. Some teams have started to evaluate their schedules, considering the effects of circadian rhythms on performance, and incorporated strategies to minimize the effects of jet lag. One goal for optimal performance is to reduce an athlete’s sleep debt that accumulates as a result of chronic sleep loss.
It is best to strategize how to reduce jet lag by implementing strategies pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight. On some flights, it could be more advantageous to sleep, while on others, it may be a better strategy to stay awake. Additionally, dehydration can make jet lag worse so athletes should do their best to stay hydrated.
During the flight, athletes should adjust their watches and eat meals in accordance to the destination time zone. He also recommends using eye masks and earplugs to aid relaxation. The strategic use of sedatives and melatonin can help as well.
Samuels has found that it may take anywhere from two to four days until you adapt to your new time zone. During this time, an athlete’s activities (trainings, meals, sleep, rest, and recovery) should be planned strategically to encourage rapid adjustment. When applied correctly, light therapy, napping, and caffeine will shorten the transition period.
TS: Which players and teams do you consult for?
CM: I have worked with the Golden State Warriors, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, San Jose Sharks, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Tampa Bay Rays, among others. I also work with players like Jeremy Lin individually.
Each league is different and the sleep challenges are different from the NFL to the NBA. There are a different number of games in a season, different travel requirements, and different cultures associated with each sport.
TS: What have teams and leagues done as a result of your and other sleep research?
CM: Professional teams across the country are interested in strategies to optimize player health and recovery, whether it’s rearranging their travel schedules to ensure their players get enough rest or just helping their athletes get better sleep throughout the year. For many of these teams, it’s the first time they have specifically focused on improving sleep or optimizing how they travel.
TS: Why has interest in athletes’ sleep habits surged in recent years?
CM: I think it’s a combination of factors. For one, there’s more research in sleep and athletics than there was 10 years ago. There’s also greater public awareness about clinical sleep disorders and the importance of sleep overall. Lastly, professional sports operate in a world where everyone wants a competitive edge and sleep is one area that teams previously hadn’t focused on.
We all intuitively know that sleep is important, but athletes often sacrifice and overlook healthy sleep. There are still teams today that have few resources around sleep, so we’re only in the very early stages of what this is going to become. When athletes start to make changes and see benefits, they’re more likely to take sleep seriously.
TS: What can the rest of us take away from your work?
CM: Healthy sleep can be considered to have several components: sleep duration; sleep quality; and timing of sleep. Everyone should aim to improve all three areas simultaneously. When it comes to sleep quality, there are lifestyle behaviors you can do to improve like avoiding caffeine or alcohol and engaging in moderate to high intensity exercise on a regular basis. You’ll also have a better chance of quality sleep if your bedtime environment is dark, quiet, cool, and comfortable. I tell my athletes to make their bedrooms like a cave.
TS: What are your top sleep tips?
CM: One of the most important things is developing a wind-down routine. Many individuals underestimate the importance of transitioning your mind and body to prepare for rest. I tell my athletes to start by reading, stretching, or doing yoga and deep breathing exercises for five minutes before sleep, then building the routine to 10 or 20 minutes over time. You should also stay off your phone while in bed and do your best to keep a consistent sleep schedule.