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Sleeping for Peak Performance: Overrated or Underrated?

Sleeping for Peak Performance: Overrated or Underrated?
By Dr. Noa Kageyama

We seem to live in a culture that values working over sleeping.

Graduate students brag about all-nighters and get a guilt-trip for not working 80-100 hours per week, medical residents apparently fall asleep while operating on patients, and young business professionals compete to see who has the busiest schedule

Indeed, many of us are proud of our ability to “get by” on minimal sleep, and are far more likely to grumble to friends and coworkers about how tired we are after a 4-hour night of sleep than gush about a 12-hour night of sleep and how great we feel.

Yet companies like Google, Nike, and The Huffington Post are installing “nap rooms” in an effort to increase employee performance and productivity.

Are they onto something? Or are we capable of toughing it out and performing at a high level regardless of how many hours we sleep?

Sleep research

There’s a ton or research out there on sleep.

It seems, for instance, that there may be a connection between how much we sleep and our weight.

And that sleep deprivation can affect our mood.

Contribute to long-term health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

Play a role in preventable accidents, like the 8000 deaths caused by fatigue-related driving accidents or a portion of the 50,000 to 100,000 deaths that result each year from preventable medical errors.

And even result in death…at least in rats.

Yet as serious as this all sounds, most of it is not directly related to our primary concern of playing great under pressure (well, except for the death bit).

So, being the busy, overcommitted, overachieving folks we all are, juggling classes, teaching, gigs, dirty dishes, children, and our best friend’s mid-life (or quarter-life) crisis, when push comes to shove, sleep is often the first area to go.

But at what cost?

Attentional lapses

Folks who pride themselves on their ability to survive on little sleep (not to be confused with those rare “short sleepers” who genuinely seem to thrive on little sleep) often claim that they can function at just as high a level as when they are well-rested.

But can they really?

An interesting 2008 study suggests that they can indeed perform at a high level even when sleep deprived…BUT there’s a catch.

We all lose focus from time to time. When well-rested, this momentary loss in focus is not a huge deal because our brains increase activity in certain regions (frontal and parietal) to compensate and increase our attention. A little like having a backup power generator that kicks in when the power goes out.

What happens when we’re sleep deprived? Well, our brain’s ability to compensate for diminished focus is compromised. Our poor tired brain struggles to regain focus, and we end up with more serious lapses in attention (source). The backup generator is still there, but is out of gas and fails to kick in when the power goes out.

Can we get through a performance? Perhaps. Well-rested or not, there will indeed be moments when our brain is functioning like normal and we are playing at a respectable level.

But what if we need to play our absolute best, for the entire duration of an audition or performance? When we must play at the edges of our ability, under significant pressure, with no lapses in performance quality? The exact sort of occasion in which attention and focus are our most mission-critical resources?

Yeah, we need that backup generator to be full of gas.

Sleep extension

Here’s some more food for thought.

Athletes have long recognized the value of exercise/training and nutrition, but in recent years, sleep has become a hot topic amongst athletes and professional teams (learn what lengths Kobe Bryant goes to for some quality sleep and the unconventional sleeping practices of one NBA team intent on staying competitive across time zones).

Indeed, a study of Stanford athletes found that extending sleep to a minimum of 10 hours in bed per night for 5-7 weeks resulted in some significant improvements in athletic functioning.

1. Athletes were faster, reflected by sprint times which decreased by .7 seconds on average. Note that .7 seconds is the difference between the fastest 40-yard dash time at the 2012 NFL combine (4.29 seconds by 5’10” 199 lb. cornerback Josh Robinson) and the 208th fastest time (4.97 seconds by 6’6” 303 lb. offensive lineman Desmond Wynn).

2. Athletes’ free throw and 3-point shooting accuracy also improved by 9% and 9.2% respectively after getting 10+ hours of sleep.

3. And not surprisingly, athletes reported feeling more alert and had more positive mood profiles.

Take action

Try a little experiment and commit to sleeping an extra hour every night for a week. See if you feel any different. More importantly, see if you notice any benefits to your practicing effectiveness, focus, and performance quality. Take notes, write down how you feel, and when the week is up, I’m betting you’ll have noticed a difference.

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