How sleep helps athletes like LeBron James and Roger Federer – and the ways we can get a good night’s rest too
Dr Meeta Singh is chief of sleep medicine at Detroit’s Henry Ford Sleep Laboratory, and has worked with some of the world’s top athletes. She shares her tips on using this ‘natural performance enhancer’ to boost your own game
When the likes of three-time NBA champion LeBron James reportedly needs 12 hours sleep a day, and Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer gets around 10 to 12 hours each night, it shows the importance of getting some shut eye.
“Smart players are understanding it’s important to sleep, that all the recovery and rest occurs while you are sleeping,” said Dr Meeta Singh, chief of sleep medicine at Henry Ford Sleep Laboratory in the US city of Detroit.
The sleep coach, who advises elite athletes on harnessing sleep for peak performance, was in Hong Kong to talk about technology addiction at the recent RISE Conference at the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. She cautioned the audience about the risk of increasing screen time sapping users’ slumber time, which she calls a “health hazard”.
For those of us who are not sports professionals, the idea of sleeping for nearly half a day is mind-boggling, especially in sleep-poor Hong Kong, where countless polls, including the 2016 AIA Healthy Living Index, have found Hongkongers on average clock only 6.5 hours – a daily sleep deficit of 1.5 hours.
But elite athletes have greater physical and mental needs, from their gruelling training routines to hectic travel schedules that disrupt their internal body clock.
“All the things that make you a good athlete often play against you when you try to fall asleep; most of the games are in the evening, and you’re all wound up by then,” Singh said.
Often, athletes drink caffeine immediately before the game to be more alert in play, she added. But caffeine stays in your system for several hours. If it’s consumed at 7pm, by the time you try to hit the pillows five hours later, half the stimulant remains in your system, which inhibits sleep, so she recommends forgoing coffee and caffeinated drinks.
Professional athletes often cross multiple time zones, then start playing almost as soon as they reach their destination, at a time that may not synchronise with their peak alertness.
This impacts players’ performances as their reaction time suffers. Their normal reaction time might be just a quarter of a second – but that may double or treble when they are sleep-deprived.
“That may not make much difference to you and I, but in pro athletes, a difference in between a quarter or half a second could make the difference between winning or losing,” she said. “When sleep- deprived, the part of the brain most affected is your frontal brain, which is involved in good decision-making, judgment and multitasking. That means you make not-well-thought-out decisions.”
Extensive research shows sleep deprivation increases one’s risk of injuries, reduces muscle building and recovery, and, if it becomes a chronic practice, triggers health consequences that increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, neuro-degenerative disorders and more.
“Every aspect of athletic performance is affected by not getting enough sleep,” Singh explains.
To prescribe solutions, she typically speaks to an entire sports team, including trainers and front office staff, to educate them on prioritising sleep, which she says is as fundamental to athletes as good nutrition and training.
Making it a priority helps shape decision-making, including that of front office staff who understand the need to arrange the best possible travel schedules for the players. She also conducts individual sleep and wake history assessments to prescribe customised solutions.
To counter jet lag – with symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty sleeping, being sleepy when one should be awake – before travelling, she helps athletes sleep well at home first.
“We have a strategy of a very streamlined exposure to bright light and occasional use of melatonin to help align their biological clock and lessen the effects of jet lag,” she said.
Melatonin is a hormone released or suppressed in your system to govern your sleep and wake cycle. Other vital factors that affect this cycle is exposure to light and darkness.
It’s not just the main body clock that needs to align with the new time zone, but cells in the body, too, which have their own timekeeping system. For example, the gut and its hormones have a circadian clock so when jet-lagged, side effects could be bloating, diarrhoea, constipation or other stomach ailments, she said. To mitigate this, she advises clients to eat less when flying and to align their meal times with the local time zone at their destination.
The master clock in the brain responds to light. “In the day, light goes into your eyes then into your circadian clock and suppresses the secretion of melatonin,” Singh explains. At night, melatonin is released to indicate to the body that it is ready for sleep.
Genetic factors come into play too, determining how many hours a person needs daily and if they are a night or morning person, she says. As a result, it’s difficult to prescribe general solutions as everyone’s needs are different. But some strategies everyone can use.
At the RISE conference, Singh noted that overuse of technology is delaying sleep time, particularly in young people, by about one or two hours. “Every phone has a back-lit LED screen which does a number on your circadian clock, which actively suppresses melatonin,” she said.
Keep the bedroom tech-free too – “Your bedroom is for sleep and sex, nothing else,” she advises.
Most smartphones have a mode in which the screen dims in the evening, but she insists this is not effective. If you are unable to put the phone away, she advises wearing blue-green light-blocking glasses to block this light spectrum, which has the strongest effect on melatonin.
Keep a regular nocturnal routine. If eight hours of sleep is required but you must arise by 6am, count back eight hours and go to bed at 10pm.
For athletes, she recommends nine to 10 hours of slumber, citing a 2011 Stanford University study of 11 members of a men’s basketball team. Participants slept for around 10 hours a night for five to seven weeks, and discovered their sprint time was faster (0.7 seconds faster) and they scored more free throws (a nine per cent improvement) and three-point shots (a 9.2 per cent improvement).
To sleep well, keep your tech-free bedroom like a cold, dark cave, at a temperature of 55 to 65 Fahrenheit (12.7 to 18.3 Celsius). Take a shower an hour before bed to lower your body temperature, priming you to sleep. Wind down with a relaxing activity – like reading an actual book.
And what about sex? In the past, some sports teams discouraged sex before competing. Singh, however, encourages it. “Because of the parasympathetic release, it helps them unwind and go to sleep afterwards. Have sex the night before your game rather than playing video games if that is what you do to try [to unwind] – sex is better.”
The sleep coach’s preflight protocol
Dr Singh was in Australia just before she flew to Hong Kong. In preparation for the 16-hour time difference between there and the US, she practised “phase delay”, pushing her bedtime later and later in the lead-up to the flight.
“Whenever the time-zone difference is greater than five to six hours, you should always phase-delay,” she said. At home, she practised a four- to five-hour phase delay: instead of her usual 11pm bed time, she pushed it to 4am gradually over a week with the help of a blue light-emitting box.
The flight schedule makes a difference in synchronising the biological clock to a new time zone. She took a 12.35pm flight from the US to Australia, which aligned with her later sleeping pattern. It let her sleep easily on the flight after about eight hours. She still dealt with jet lag in Australia, but only for three days.