Sleeping your way to success

Can you get through a thousand words on sleep without using the phrase, ‘perchance to dream’? We’ll do our best, but no promises.

Pat Byrne of Fatigue Science deals with the hard facts of sleep rather than the poetry, however.

His company, based on the west coast of Canada, works with organisations for whom fatigue can be dangerous rather than inconvenient: pilots in the US military, for instance.

Byrne’s starting point is an obvious one for a scientist: get the data.

“It’s a question of planning, and being able to have good objective metrics with which to make good decisions. We’ve been doing this for six years in north America with the NFL, the NHL, the NBA.

“Once teams’ individual players see how their sleep patterns directly affect their reaction times, then they can make much better decisions about lifestyle and travel issues, for instance.

“Fatigue is not, in the context of sport, something that can be objectively measured, but you can measure reaction times and to measure sleep — and then correlate the two.”

That’s the key message imparted by Byrne. This is science, not guesswork.

“It’s recognised that sleep is probably the most important factor not only in preparation but in terms of recovery.

“There are great studies out there to prove this — it’s not a subjective thing, either, there are strong objective studies which prove how you can improve your reaction time and performance through improving your sleep.”

The US and Canadian sports leagues Byrne and his colleagues work with clearly see value in that partnership.

Pro basketball, American football, soccer and ice hockey have outposts thousands of miles apart, and clearly a team crossing four time zones will need players refreshed and invigorated by sleep.

If they’re dubious about the benefits of a good kip, Byrne has proof to convince them.

“First, for individual players, say, the benefits of sleep are obvious and quantifiable if the player has a sleep disorder; there may be lifestyle issues, and those aren’t always negative. They may have small kids waking at night or they may be using the internet late at night. What we do with our technology is we show how their sleep affects their reaction time in games. I’m just back from Stanford University, which has done a lot of great work in this area, and they recently completed a study of American football players running the 40-yard dash, a standard measurement of speed in the sport.

“Within a period of six to eight weeks of having extended sleep, say nine to 10 hours a night, those players were able to improve their average speed for the 40 by 0.1 seconds. That may not sound a lot, but could be the difference between being first and 50th at the NFL combine.”

That’s a significant point for Byrne, the importance of sleep over a prolonged period as opposed to quality of rest the night before an event.

“We work with teams around the world, and what we tell them is that for many years, sleep and fatigue were analysed subjectively, but now there are easy and objective ways to measure how it helps performance. Once you have solid information, it helps to make good decisions.

“Take your sleep over the period of a week before a game. One disruption the night before a game will probably cause minimum disruption, but if you’re routinely getting low sleep hours, that will have effect your performance.”

He also ties quality sleep to people’s natural rhythm, and cites statistics which reinforce his point.

“Your reaction time during a game is reliant on two factors: the quality of your sleep, and also the time of day the game takes place, because your reaction time changes over the course of the day.

“That’s pretty consistent and part of our natural circadian rhythms as human beings. The latest study, which Stanford published this year, looked at the 40-year win-loss record of west coast NFL teams which travelled to the east coast for games.

“It’s a three-hour time difference, so it’s a big difference in the natural rhythms, but they found that afternoon games saw no huge difference. A 1pm east coast game is 10am on the west coast, and the difference in reaction time was about 3%.

“But for evening games on the east coast, 8pm, west coast teams were at the peak of their rhythm, so their reaction times were at their peak, while for an east coast team, playing until 11pm, their reaction times declined.

“The difference between their reaction times was 9%, which is a lot, and over the 40 years studied, the west coast teams had a massive win-loss advantage as a result.”

What, then, can a sportsman — or a regular citizen — do to improve quality of sleep? “Assuming a person doesn’t have a medical issue, the main mistake people make is having too much light in the bedroom and too much noise. Also, staying on the internet very late makes your brain very active, and that makes it harder to sleep. With athletes on the road, when they go to hotels they unplug clocks and lights to make it darker — and quieter — the better to sleep.”

— visit fatiguescience.com


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