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How Sleep Can Improve Your Athletic Performance

What's the difference between the best athletes in the world and the next best? Fame, glory, fortune -- and inches, millimeters and milliseconds.
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Getting the Edge
What's the difference between the best athletes in the world and the next best? Fame, glory, fortune -- and inches, millimeters and milliseconds. With so many superb athletes so closely matched, anything providing an edge changes also-rans to champions.

Which is why we have endless doping scandals, use of growth hormone and "unlisted" drugs throughout sports and grand juries investigating baseball -- people go to great lengths to find that "edge." Yet sometimes the edge is natural. What you need is knowledge, practice and the understanding of when to use the knowledge of how your body really works.

Such is the case with rest -- how the body rebuilds and regenerates -- which it does with extraordinary quickness. Athletes must pay special attention to regeneration, for that's how they stay in the game -- and win. And recently two studies showed very different ways where rest can improve peak performance, ways that I believe can benefit anyone.

Sleep and Basketball

Cheri Mah has an enviable job as assistant to the renowned sleep researcher Dr. Bill Dement at Stanford, and she knows it. The two have been researching athletes for some time, and this month's issue of Sleep includes their latest study on sleep and sports performance -- on the Stanford basketball team. Students were asked to sleep normally for two to four weeks, then spend five to seven weeks sleeping 10 hours a night during season. Though most slept fewer than 9 hours, here are the results: shooting percentage of three point field goals went up 9.2 percent; shooting percentage at foul line went up nine percent; and sprint speed decreased from 16.2 seconds to 15.5 second average. Athletes also reported better mood, less fatigue and faster reaction times.

Does the NBA know about this? Yes. The head of Sleep Medicine at Harvard, Charles Czeisler, M.D., has been instrumental in getting rid of early morning practices and recommending at least 8 to 8.5 hours sleep a night for NBA professionals.

Why Does More Rest Work?

Sleep rewires the brain and body. Lots of learning -- including for new physical moves -- takes place while you sleep, as brain connections are made and pruned. High levels of physical activity cause the production of new brain cells -- in memory areas -- that become functional within days. And people's mood and overall memory improve.

Now let's turn to baseball.

Baseball, Body Clocks and Rest

Want to set a new world record, or even a personal one? Try your sport in the late afternoon to early evening, around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. A disproportionate number of records fall at this time.

Yet not everyone does equally well. There are morning types and evening types -- larks and owls -- who perform very differently at different times of day.

Including in Major League Baseball.

Christopher Winter, M.D., and colleagues at Martha Jefferson Hospital's Sleep Disorder Center in Charlottesville have been tracking biological clock effects on professional athletes. Their most recent study presented at the recent Minneapolis Sleep Research meetings looked at 16 MLB batters from seven teams -- nine of whom were morning "larks," seven of whom were night "owls" -- and their 2009 and 2010 batting records.

In professional baseball, people fly a lot. Jet lag was counted as taking 24 hours to adjust per time zone -- as jet lag had previously been shown by the group to affect player and team performance. Early play games started before 2 p.m.; midday games were between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; nighttime was afterward.

Here are the batting percentages:

Early play (2149 innings): Larks, 0.267; Owls 0.259
Mid play (4550 innings): Larks 0.252; Owls 0.261
Night-time play (750 innings:) Larks 0.252; Owls 0.306

Larks play better early, owls play better late -- and the differences at night were quite significant.

What You Can Do

Humans continuously rebuild. We do this particularly well if we know how our bodies are designed -- and use that knowledge.

The two studies above are small, but consistent with other results. To get the edge you want, you need to know how to rest.

For sleep:

1. Determine how many hours is your normal sleep allotment to feel your best (how many hours you sleep after one week into a relaxing vacation is one quick method -- see "The Power of Rest" for more).
2. Particularly during season, try to protect that time for sleep. This means no electronic media at least an hour before bedtime -- letting you rest before sleep so that you really rest throughout the night.

For body clocks:

1. Determine if you are lark, owl or in-between (You can check "The Body Clock Advantage" for one quick check list or use the Horne Ostberg scale.
2. When you play in phase -- early for larks, late for owls -- don't worry as long as you're getting sufficient sleep and can use active rest techniques to obtain relaxed, alert concentration. When out of phase, use light. Light is a drug -- a powerful one. The main principle is early light makes inner clocks earlier, and late night light shifts them later.

Early morning light -- as in walking in the morning -- can be extremely useful to owls playing morning games. Larks performing at night may, outside of the summer months, use light boxes to get their body clocks set so they'll be fully ready to play.

There are many nuances to using light -- and sometimes melatonin -- to resetting body clocks. Frequent travels changes all factors regarding sleep. But what matters is regenerating your body, every hour of every day. Know how to do that and you can get an edge in sports performance -- and most every other kind of performance.