Keeping it real and using science to explain

Sleep as a competitive edge


The majority of us need around 7-9 hours of restorative sleep with a smaller percent of us needing less to feel fully rested. That’s the foregone conclusion of the overwhelming research on sleep.

But here’s how I frame it.  We often don’t get enough zzz’s to function  anywhere close to the top of our game.  And that doesn’t matter, because what do we tell ourselves?  That to be competitive, to be more successful, all we need to do is sleep one hour less to gain one more hour of productivity in the day.

But who is the beneficiary?  Only a very small fraction of the population can get away with less sleep, and the stars probably don’t line up that your one of them.

Sleep deprivation.  A performance killer

If you want advice on sleep? Look to what the sleep experts have to say. And better yet? Someone who knows a thing or two about a competition. Harvard sleep expert and professional sports team go-to-advisor on sleep, Dr. Charles Czeisler, weighs in, “Like a drunk, a person who is sleep deprived has no idea how functionally sleep-deprived, he or she truly is,” he was quoted as saying. “Most of us have forgotten what it feels like to be awake.”

You probably heard this before. If you are burning the candle at both ends, eventually you won’t stay on top of your game.  According to Czeisler, if you average just 4 hours a night, day after day, your memory, cognition, problem-solving and performance speed will be just as cognitively impaired as someone who has stayed up 24 hours straight.

Take, for instance, the performance of Major League Baseball players on less than ideal sleep. According to a 1995 study, as reported in the Atlantic, if the visiting team is flown in on a red-eye, the home team scores more than 1.2 points. Back-to-backs have seen nose-dives in the performance of the NBA and other Major League teams.

More Zzzz’s? Who can benefit?

But it doesn’t take being a Major League player whose performance could benefit from more sleep.  People who are chronically sleep deprived, from working long hours- including those who need to make a decision, process a new memory, or use critical thinking skills- could benefit.   Research has shown that consolidation of memories specifically occurs during sleep.  And, according to an MIT study, before we can transform short-term memories into long- term memories, the sleeping brain must be able to replay experiences we have had while awake.

The upshot

If today you are sleep deprived and tomorrow you need to be on “top of your game,” what’s the takeaway? Sleep expert Czeisler’s advice to the Major League players might help to explain.

On the eve of game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, Czeisler got an emergency call from the team physician of the Boston Bruins. Their game against the Vancouver Canucks was scheduled for 5 pm the next day with a team practice scheduled at 10:30 am. “Cancel the practice,” Czeisler advised. “The guys need to take a nap to perform at their best.”

Czeisler calculated that a 10.30 nap in the morning would equal a 1:30 nap in the afternoon in Boston. He also knew that memory, skill and performance speed would be affected if the team could not recoup the lost sleep.

He went on to unexpectedly advise that the team then sleep at least 9 hours the very next night after the game. Czeizler stated: “It’s the sleep after the lesson, game or event that is most important.” He went on, “Interestingly, if you don’t sleep the night after training, then if you sleep the next night and the next, you never learn.”

The night of the Stanley Cup? The Bruins ended a 39 year Stanley Cup drought with their 4:3 win. Was it a striking turnaround, or simply good sleep?

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