Sleep – not training or working for another hour – is when your body gets stronger and your mind gets sharper. You break down your muscles in training, but rest is when the fibres repair themselves and become more powerful. And all those skills and memories you acquire in a day are encoded while the lights are out. Lose sleep and your neurons start firing more slowly and working together less efficiently. Your reaction time, your speed and your focus all degrade. Even just three nights of crappy sleep has been shown to drop your bench press by 10 kilograms. And in the long run, you’re cueing up obesity, heart disease, stroke and other health troubles. “The research that’s coming out now is unequivocal,” says W. Christopher Winter, the neurologist who first figured out – more than a decade ago – that jet lag was related to Major League Baseball teams losing games. “People who sleep more and sleep better perform better, both in the short and the long term.” You might not need 10 hours like an elite athlete. But you should shoot for seven to nine, and most of us aren’t even coming close.
HOW GOOD IS VITAMIN Z?
Dr Cheri Mah knows better than most the dividends sleep can pay. In 2011, as a researcher at Stanford’s Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, she published the study that catapulted the subject of sleep into clubhouses across the country. Mah required a group of players on Stanford’s men’s basketball team to snooze at least 10 hours a night. (How do you get students to sleep more? Make them spend more time in bed – for almost everyone, more time in bed leads to more time asleep, she says.)
No one expected more sleep to be bad for the players, but the results were a shock: free-throw percentages increased by nine per cent, successful three-point field goals jumped 9.2 per cent, and injuries dropped to boot. “They all improved,” says Mah. Related studies she conducted showed that with more sleep, college swimmers improved their times, soccer players sprinted faster and reported increased vigour, and tennis players saw their accuracy increase. Basically, both their brains and their bodies functioned better. “Then my story became: How do I apply this?”
One of the first pro teams Mah consulted for was the Golden State Warriors. That was in 2014, toward the beginning of their multi-season run as the NBA’s dominant force. She quickly helped the team optimise its travel and practice schedules. Cross-country flights before games and red-eyes afterwards? No way. Mandatory practice the morning after a six-hour journey? Nope. In fact, fatigue is such a clear indicator of performance that Mah collaborated with ESPN on a schedule-alert project to predict when NBA teams would be at highest risk of losing based on travel and fatigue factors. In its second season, the tool correctly guessed sleep-based losses 78 per cent of the time. Since then, Mah says, the NBA has improved scheduling by keeping player fatigue in mind. (Consider the same with your own calendar.)
Organisational changes help only so much; athletes have to follow through on their own. And you do too. Below, discover how to get championship sleep and level up.
HOW TO SLEEP LIKE A CHAMP
1. MAKE SLEEP AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR GAME
For those of us who aren’t paid tens of millions of dollars to perform, the idea of finding more time for sleep can be daunting. When obligations pile up, it’s usually the first thing to go. That’s backward thinking. “If you increase your time in bed by even 15-20 minutes, you will notice a difference,” says Dr Meeta Singh, a sleep-disorder and sportsmedicine expert at the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Center. You know how Tom Brady gets to bed by 8:30? He prioritises it.
2.CUT THE BULL
“I always encounter this type, the Silicon Valley dude who’s killing it financially, has kids, is trying to do a triathlon,” Winter says. “He goes to bed at midnight and wakes up at 4am. He says he’s doing great and needs four hours. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Give your body a chance to operate at its full potential by getting a complete night’s rest a few days in a row. Then see how you perform. You might do better on nine hours, even if you’ve been telling everyone – including yourself – that you’re fine with four.
3. WORK YOUR ROOM
During the season, athletes sleep in different hotel rooms every week. To create the perfect environment – a quiet, dark, cool room (between 15.5-19.5°C) – they might need to use pillows to keep blinds and curtains light-tight. LeBron reportedly relies on white noise (Rain on Leaves in the Calm app) to block out distractions. Use your home advantage to set up the right sleeping environment every night.
4. FOAM-ROLL BEFORE BED.
You need a bedtime routine that’s not about screens, which mess with your ability to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. Athletes (and probably you) know it’s a good idea to foam-roll muscles anyway, so why not make it part of a dedicated 15-30 minutes of wind-down time, Mah says. Substitutes for rolling: yoga or some time reading an actual book or magazine.
5. IF TRAVEL IS SHORT, DON’T CHANGE YOUR SCHEDULE.
Athletes normally shuffle between two to four time zones, Winter says. Research suggests that the players’ performance peaks in late afternoon, so he may tell a US West Coast pitcher to stay on California time for a nighttime match-up in New York. If you’re in a different time zone for a quick meeting that falls within your regular work hours, you might not have to bother trying to adjust.
6. POWER UP WITH NAP-TIME, IF YOU CAN.
Take a nap to help reset after lunch or midafternoon to finish your workday strong. In the NBA, stars such as Kevin Durant, Paul George, and Steph Curry all swear by the pre-game nap to keep them alert and focused.
7. MAKE CONSISTENCY IMPORTANT
You need weeks of consistent sleep to live and play to your full potential, Mah says. That means going to bed and getting up at nearly the same time every day. Your “sleep debt” accumulates when you don’t get enough for days on end, and a night or weekend of extra sleep won’t settle your bill.
8. AND IF YOU CAN’T SLEEP TONIGHT . . .
“I tell my athletes and my patients that sleep is the most important thing in the world, but tonight’s sleep is irrelevant,” Winter says. Don’t beat yourself up if you have some rough nights or weeks. That’s normal. Stuff happens – and lying in bed is often when you think about it. What shouldn’t be normal is cheating your sleep every night and expecting victory in every game.