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Sleep Better, Go Faster?
by Ed Moran and Ed Hewitt, row2k.com
posted on January 26, 2017

Trailer Napping

The life of a student athlete can often be a battle between grades and performance (and social life). While the straightforward end game for most student athletes is an education and a degree, the drive to perform while maintaining the requisite GPA to hold a scholarship or even just to remain a part of a team can lead to sacrificing what may well be the most essential factor in pulling it off: sleep.

With training ramping up and the season just ahead, now is a good time to think about ways to get the right amount of rest.

"We know that sleep impacts cognitive performance, and not just looking at athletes; students who get more sleep actually perform better in school," said Dr. Amy Bender, a Sleep Scientist for the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance.

"They have higher test scores, they have better grades, they feel better. So proper rest is absolutely important from an academic standpoint, and then obviously from an athletic standpoint as well.”

Bender has been conducting studies on the impact of deprivation for the past 11 years while working with Canadian Olympic teams to try and improve performance by altering behaviors disruptive to sleep, most recently with the Canadian women's Olympic eight.

By studying the athletes' "base" sleep habits and then working with them to change the way they prepare for sleep, Bender was able to increase the amount of actual rest the athletes were getting.

Some of the suggestions included shutting off electronics to limit exposure to "blue lights" from laptops, tablets and cell phone screens. The athletes were even provided special "blue light" blocking glasses to wear an hour before going to bed.

"We know that blue lights from our electronics screens and our lights, even our overhead lights, can impact our sleep quality by reducing melatonin.

“At the beginning of the study, only about a quarter of the athletes were satisfied with their sleep,” Bender said. At the end of the intervention period, eighty percent reported they were sleeping better.

"They reported less muscle soreness. They reported feeling better and being able to train harder for longer, showing that these interventions can be useful,” she said.

Read more about Bender's work with the Canadian women's eight, including a slideshow of Bender's strategies that you can use.

The idea that more sleep increases performance is not new. Sleep study professionals have been employed by professional sports teams to push up the win columns for at least a decade. Professional athletes are a better positioned to change their sleep habits than are both collegiate and junior and high school athletes.

How much does sleep affect athletic performance? In a study by Major League Baseball and performance tracker company Whoop, results indicated that fastball speed for pitchers and "ball exit velocity" (the speed at which the ball leaves the bat) improve consistently as a measure of "Recovery" improves.

Below is a chart depicting players’ adjusted fastball speeds (the average velocity of the top 10% of a pitcher’s fastballs in that game vs. the same metric for the entire season) compared to their Recovery (on a scale of 0-100) on the day they took the mound; the amount of data available for this analysis was minimal, but within the small sample size there is a positive relationship between Recovery and fastball performance.

We saw something similar when examining the speed of the ball off the bat (only instances of line drives hit off fastballs were taken into account)

Like with pitchers' fastballs, the exit velocity of batters' line drives relative to their season averages were also faster when the players' Recoveries were higher.

Some athletes were more sensitive to changes in Recovery than others, but it's exciting that every player had a positive slope–they all performed better when their Recoveries were higher. It’s very possible that this relationship isn’t actually linear. For example, some pitchers may be able to reach their peak fastball speed as long as their Recovery is above a certain level. Or, conversely, some hitters’ power might drop off dramatically only when their Recovery is extremely low.

Similarly, Toronto Raptors and US Olympic basketball player Kyle Lowry saw marked improvements over a five game stretch in points (3 more per game), assists (more than doubled), shot percentage (improved by 16%), and turnovers (way down) when he was rested vs. tired.

Because of the varied demands on high school and especially college students, it may be even more critical for student athletes to get more rest, and experts in the field stress the importance of reinforcing healthy sleep habits for those athletes.

There are several articles available online that detail ways to improve the lives of student athletes through better sleep habits. One published by the Foundation for Global Sports Development has these suggestions:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Wake up at the same time on the weekends as you do weekdays.
  • Eat a large meal at night, about three hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as both can lead to less restful sleep.
  • Develop healthy ways to manage stress.
  • Exercise should take place earlier in the day, no later than four hours before bedtime.
  • Nap if feeling drowsy, but for no longer than 30 minutes.


Read more at Teens and Sleep, Do Athletes Need Extra Sleep, and Researching Rowers Sleep Habits.

Anyplace is a good place to catch up on rest

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