What We Can Learn About Sleep From Pro Athletes

Plus: 3 tips for better shut-eye from the NHL's top sleep coach.
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The San Jose Sharks hold the NHL's road record for the 2015-2016 season, meaning they've won the most games away from home. If you ask their leadership team, the secret to that success is clear: They prioritize sleep.

Sleep expert Cheri D. Mah of the Human Performance Center at the University of California, San Francisco advises the team on how to use sleep to optimize performance both on the road and at home. Turns out, west coast teams need it more than most. They play through more different time zones than other teams, Mike Potenza, the Sharks’ strength and conditioning coach, told The New York Times.

How athletes benefit from extra sleep

While sleep is important for everyone, it may play a specific role for elite performers, Mah told The Huffington Post. “Sleep is particularly important for athletes striving to be at their peak performance, as sleep can impact cognitive and physical performance, as well as training, recovery and overall health."

Some research has shown that even as little as one night of partial sleep deprivation can affect peak heart rate levels, plasma lactate concentrations and ratings of perceived exertion, which all affect exercise performance.

But not all research is so conclusive: “It is plausible that athletes would need more sleep, but there is not good evidence,” warned sleep researcher Shawn Youngstedt, a professor in the college of nursing & health innovation at Arizona State University, told HuffPost.

Several studies suggest that partial sleep restriction and sleep deprivation may not influence performance -- like one that showed even three nights of restricted sleep did not affect endurance running performance -- but findings like those may be a result of small study size and short time frames that the studies looked at, according to a 2014 review of research on sleep and athletic performance in the journal Sports Medicine.

There are many ways to measure performance and the effect of sleep deprivation may also depend a lot on the athletic activity, according to William G. Herbert, professor emeritus in the department of human nutrition, foods & exercise at Virginia Tech and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.

While he agreed that aerobic and muscular power may not be affected by sleeplessness, most complex athletic activities require fine motor skills, such as visual tracking, decision making, vigilance, and others, which are affected by sleep loss.

“In the case of elite professional athletes, significant travel across time zones and related disruptions in sleep-wake cycles do likely affect sports where cognitive, fine motor skills and emotional factors are especially important,” he said.

How to sleep like a pro-hockey player

In other words, athletes are just like the rest of us. Sleeplessness affects cognitive, fine motor skills and/or emotional factors in athletes -- and in people who work a desk job. Here are three essential sleep tips straight from the San Jose Sharks' playbook. Chances are, they'll help anyone feel and perform better:

David Crespo

1. Make sure you get enough hours of sleep every single night

Mah recommends 8 to 10 hours of sleep for her players, but the National Sleep recommends 7 to 9 for most adults.

2. Follow a wind down routine

“A wind down routine is key for transitioning from the day to preparing for sleep,” Mah said. She recommends that the athletes she works with spend 20 to 30 minutes stretching or practicing yoga before hitting their sheets and use the time strategically to process their thoughts.

3. Nap when needed

Naps are very commonplace for professional athletes, Mah said. Athletes often nap after practice, before games, on flights or during any down time they have. She added that many athletes find it easiest to nap in the afternoon because there is aleeps dip in the circadian clock then.

Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at sarah.digiulio@huffingtonpost.com.

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