Sleep: The New Frontier In Performance Technology

Nov 20, 2019 | Blog

You may not be able to compete with a pro athlete, but at least you can sleep like one. While many studies have been performed on how physical training and a nutritious diet can help improve performance, sleep is an area often ignored and left up to the everyday whims of players. However, UC San Francisco sleep expert Cherie Mah has been applying her extensive knowledge of sleep optimization to help sports teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Francisco Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles to gain performance advantages through a highly regulated sleep regimen. Mah has found that sleep deprivation is linked to slower reaction times, longer recoveries in cases of injuries, and an overall worsened performance. Sleep deprivation can also prevent an athlete from keeping their “head in the game” as it increases irritability and prevents one from having a positive focus.

To combat this, Mah recommends pro athletes get at least 10 hours of sleep. A study on NBA players found that getting two more hours of sleep per night increased their speed by 5% and their three-point shots by 9%. However, getting even eight hours during the travel season is incredibly difficult, let alone 10 or more. Players are frequently subjected to intense travel schedules where they have 3 games in 4 nights and need to travel between the cities. This often means taking late night flights after a game, getting in late to hotels, and consequently obtaining only a fraction of the sleep they should be getting. Portland Trailblazer’s center, Hassan Whiteside, remarks that “it’s just so hard to get the sleep you need,” when talking about in-season game travel. In fact, NBA players average one game every 2.07 days, totaling up to 82 games over the course of six months. During this time, they fly up to 50,000 miles per season, or the equivalent of 250 miles every day for 25 weeks in a row.

Sleep is very important to Whiteside. It “could be the difference between you having a career game or playing terrible.” But Whiteside isn’t the only one speaking up about the importance of sleep and how it affects one’s game-time performance. Portland Trailblazer’s guard CJ McCollum emphasizes that “sleep is everything” and a “lack of sleep messes up your recovery, messes up how you play, your cognitive function, your mindset, how you’re moving on the court.” So why is sleep something that is not talked about in the NBA, NFL, MLB, or any other professional athletic organization?

Nutrition, rigorous exorcise regimens, and game-time strategy are often prioritized and expected to get a team to the playoffs while quality sleep is put on the backburner. We also live in a society where sleep is not appropriately valued, and instead associated with laziness, a lack of drive, and even weakness. Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant are known for priding themselves on how little sleep they get and these attitudes towards sleep are what drive the sleep debt being accumulated by professional athletes.

But more and more athletes are recognizing the importance of a good night’s rest. Lebron James averages 12 hours of sleep per day and knows that “sleep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery.” Steph Curry prioritizes getting at least 8 hours of sleep and takes desensitizing flotation baths in order to improve recovery time and sleep quality. Tobias Harris of the Philadelphia 76ers even says that “in a couple years, [sleep deprivation] will be an issue that’s talked about like the NFL with concussions.” But for now, sleep optimization might just be the best way to gain an advantage against an opponent. Dr. Eve Van Cauter, director of the Sleep, Metabolism, and Health Center at the University of Chicago says that sleep loss leads to a decline in physical performance, hand-eye coordination, and attention span, and increases one’s chance of injury. Athletes like Lebron James and Stephen Curry, who are known for taking care of their bodies and prioritizing sleep are also famous for their endurance, lack of injuries, amazing records, and overall superior athleticism.

The average NBA team is worth $1.9 billion and its value is founded on the athletic capabilities of their players. But what is the point of spending millions of dollars on coaches, trainers, nutritionists, and cutting-edge technology when one of the most important factors of a player’s health and performance is ignored. Dr. Meeta Singh, chief of sleep medicine at Detroit’s Henry Ford Sleep laboratory “every aspect of athletic performance is affected by not getting enough sleep.” Seeking out sleep specialists like Dr. Singh, Dr. Van Cauter, or Dr. Mah might provide a way for these teams to work towards sleep optimization, and consequently, improved athletic performance. But this can’t be done overnight.

Continuous monitoring of an athlete’s sleep patterns is essential to fully understanding their own individual needs regarding getting a good night’s rest. Andre Iguodala of the Memphis Grizzlies spent the majority of his first decade in the NBA sleep deprived. However, since then he’s been working with Cherie Mah to better manage his sleep habits. In 2016, Iguodala wore a sleep-tracking device and was astounded at how much his performance improved when he was getting eight hours of sleep. “It wasn’t just the games. I practiced better, my preparation was better.” Iguodala averaged a 37% decrease in turnovers, 45% decrease in fouls, and a 9% improvement in free-throws when he slept for eight hours or more the night before. For him, there’s no question about if sleep affects performance.

But sleep deprivation isn’t solely an NBA problem—it affects everyone. In fact, the CDC declared insufficient sleep to a be a public health problem in 2011 when they realized the national average sleep during the work week decreased from 8.5 hours to less than 7. While your job may not be involve shooting three-pointers or throwing a 60-yard pass, sleep optimization can still enhance your day-to-day performance. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night has been found to improve productivity, enhance decision making skills, and increase alertness. Some ways to improve your sleep habits are developing a wind-down routine before going to bed, avoiding caffeine and big meals late at night, and sleeping in a cool, dark environment.