Getting a good night’s sleep has its rewards, such as reduced fatigue and better concentration. For athletes, the benefits may be even bigger -- faster speed and improved performance. Those are the findings from a recent, albeit small study in which college basketball players fared better on sprints and free throws after sleeping more than they normally did. “Athletes understand how important training is, and nutrition, but there’s a third component that makes a big difference in how they perform -- sleep,” says Cheri Mah, lead author of the study presented last week at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies’ meeting in Minneapolis.
Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, says athletes often aren’t counseled on the value of adequate sleep, adding that college students are no strangers to sleep deprivation, sometimes maxing out at five or six hours of sleep a night. That’s far below the 9.5 to 10 hours recommended by sleep experts for adolescents and young adults.
The study followed six Stanford basketball players, ages 18 to 21, during their 2006 playing season. For two weeks they followed normal sleep patterns, then they were told to sleep as much as they could for six weeks, with a goal of 10 hours a night, and to maintain a regular sleeping and waking schedule. During both phases, the players were tested several times a week on sprints and free throws following team practice.
Sprint times improved by a second by the end of the study (16.3 compared with 15.3 on a 282-foot sprint). Free throws averaged 7.9 (out of 10) during the regular sleep period, versus 8.8 at the end. Three-point shots picked up as well, averaging 9.2 (out of 15) during regular sleep and 11 upon completion. Mah says that since the study began in the middle of the season, “there shouldn’t be a learning curve from the baseline” that would greatly affect the results.
The athletes were also given standard subjective written tests that measured mood and fatigue; after sleeping more they reported increased energy and improved mood. “I think the sleep debt is the biggest factor that’s weighing down these athletes,” says Mah. “When they’re in season, they believe they’re doing well, but they don’t realize how much better they’d be if they reduced their sleep debt. A lot of athletes think that fatigue is normal.”
A previous study on sleep deprivation published in 1999 in the Lancet found that less sleep resulted in impaired glucose metabolism, which affects how the body stores and processes glucose for energy. Even for the weekend schoolyard basketball player, more sleep could result in better games, says Mah: “Getting a little extra sleep will give you that little bit more.”