By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- An athlete’s natural sleep/wake cycle has a major effect on performance
- Early risers tend to perform at their best about 6 hours after waking; late risers tend to perform at their best about 11 hours after waking
- If you need to perform at your peak and are traveling through different time zones, coordinating and getting your body used to a new sleep/wake cycle will have a significant effect on your performance
- Try to get to your new destination several days in advance, or if you can’t do that try to stay as close to your normal time zone on that first day
Most teenagers don’t get enough sleep. And here’s more challenging news for the young athlete: your sleep schedule plays a big role in your athletic performance.
I came across a study published a couple of years back that found that when you normally get up may play a critical role in game time success. Researchers analyzed the lifestyles of young adult (average age 22) field hockey and squash players using detailed surveys and diary entries. Based on the athletes’ natural internal clocks (called “circadian rhythms”), the researchers classified those who naturally rise and sleep early as ‘larks,’ those who do the opposite as ‘owls,’ and the rest as intermediates.
The scientists then conducted a cardiovascular fitness test six times a day on the players. It turns out that the early risers performed best around noon, the intermediates in late afternoon and the late risers in the evening.
Interestingly, when the scientists tracked the players’ performances according to their internal biological time instead of real clock time, they found that the larks and the intermediates shared the same pattern: Both peaked about six hours after they woke up. The owls, on the other hand, hit their sweet spot 11 hours after their day started. The researchers think the effect may have to do with when cortisol is produced, which depends on sleep patterns. They also say that peak performance time can be adjusted by switching yourself to a sleep schedule more consistent with when your race or game would be starting.
The implications from this study are pretty clear: if you need to function at your peak then you need to pay attention to timing of your natural sleep cycle. What matters most is not the specific time of day when an event takes place, but how long after your natural wake cycle you need to be at your peak.
Based on this and other studies, as well as recommendations from sleep experts here’s what I think:
- If you have a really important event in which you’ll be traveling across time zones, know that your sleep/wake cycle will affect your performance
- To perform at your peak, try to get to your new destination as many days in advance as possible and get your body’s natural clock used to the new time zone
- If you’re flying to your new time zone the day before your game – which is very common- try to stay in your old time zone’s sleep/wake time for that first day.
- Hopefully, your game time will match with your natural body clock 🙂
Get some sleep. It’s way more important than you might think.