For us humans, sleep is completely crucial to proper functioning. As we’ve all experienced, we’re simply not as adept at anything in our lives if we don’t sleep well. Without proper sleep, whether it’s a short-term or long-term deficit, there are substantial effects on mood, mental and cognitive skills, and motor abilities. When it comes to recovery from hard physical efforts, there’s simply no better treatment than sleep, and a lot of it.
Most research on the effects of sleep on athletes has studied sleep deprivation. And those effects are quite strong. Just like the rest of us, athletes see a drop in their performance across all sorts of measurements if they are kept awake for the entire night, or even just interrupted in their sleep.
It seems like certain kinds of athletic tasks are more affected by sleep deprivation. Although one-off efforts and high-intensity exercise see an impact, sustained efforts and aerobic work seem to suffer an even larger setback. Gross motor skills are relatively unaffected, while athletes in events requiring fast reaction times have a particularly hard time when they get less sleep.
But instead of focusing on the effects of a lack of sleep, it’s more interesting to explore additional sleep as an advantage. If an athlete gets more sleep than his or her competitors, will that lead to an edge? That’s just the question that Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah set out to answer. She reached out to athletes at her university, trying to find a group that would participate in an experiment in which they would first measure their athletic performance after having their normal amount of sleep, and then spend weeks trying to extend their sleep as much as possible, to see what effect it would have on objective measurements of athletic performance. Amazingly, no one had ever done a study to see the effect of sleep extension on competitive athletes.