Transcript of Interview with Sleep Researcher Cheri Mah

For a story on how NFL athletes can see an improvement in their performance by sleeping, we interviewed Stanford University sleep researcher Cheri Mah.  She is involved in a study that looks at whether reducing or eliminating sleep debt (accumulated when an individual gets less rest than their body needs) will lead to an an increase in athlete performance.  Below is a partial transcript of that interview, edited for clarity. Once the sleep debt was reduced, what kind of performance improvement did you see?

Well from the beginning of the study what we did was a two-week baseline. During those two we weeks we had these athletes conduct different performance measures so we can see their reaction time, shooting percentages and sprinting times were. We also looked at what their mood levels were. We were coming in with the assumption that these athletes have trained the majority of the off-season and were coming in as close to peak performance in the very beginning. Because, there’s also that assumption that there’s that wear and tear of a long season as you get closer to, you know, say week ten in the academic quarter.

As we extended their sleep we were trying to get them down to as low as zero sleep debt as possible. We did not do what’s called a multiple sleep latency test to confirm that they’re at zero sleep. Again, the main goal of the study was to extend their sleep as much as possible, given the constraints of a collegiate athlete who has to  juggle academics and traveling and their sport and social life.

And so, when we extended their sleep, we did start to see certain improvements in some of these specific measures that are indicative of performance. So, in shooting—we saw improvements in their shooting and free throws and three-point percentages. Same with some of their sprints and agility drills. So, you are seeing improvement in athletic performance as their sleep debt goes away?

We have started to see improvements, yes. And what’s interesting is sometimes the improvements in performance are not necessarily only after that one night of really good sleep or two weeks of really good sleep. The largest difference that were seeing is often over the long term, over multiple weeks of really prioritizing adequate rest and,  if anything, getting even more than perhaps what you’re body needs in order to get that sleep debt down to a smaller level. So what it sounds like is that there’s no overnight fix with this.

Right. If you want the most out of your performance level, no. What were starting to see is more long-term priority that’s really having the biggest impact. There definitely can be an impact on performance within one night. There’s shorter-term research that looks at recovery sleep after deprivation.  And, even after one week or a couple of days, you can see an impact on different performance levels from recovery sleep. But, we were trying to take it almost to an extreme where we’re doing this over multiple weeks and trying to get these athletes as fully satiated as possible. I know you’re not necessarily working with NFL players, but these players that are competing in the NFL playoffs, what should they be doing in terms of sleep? Should they be getting more sleep than usual?

So, what I do with research here at Stanford is these studies on athletic performance. But, over the last couple years, I’ve started to work with professional sports.

Obviously, so much rides on these games. Yet, to my understanding most of these professional teams don’t focus on sleep and recovery as highly as they do the physical training, the nutrition and the coaching, and other areas that they have optimized as much as possible.

Especially when you get to the professional level, they’re flying all over the country … left and right, east and west.  Most teams, to my understanding, don’t really account for jetlag and the time differences and work out scheduling so it physiologically maximizes the benefit to their athletes.

So, when you’re talking about coming up with the Superbowl it’s interesting because we’re now towards the end of the long season. And a lot of athletes have experienced the grind of several months, if obviously not a whole year, of training. I think the take-home that we’ve started to understand that it’s not just one night of really good sleep or a whole week. It’s something that you need to prioritize each and every day if you really want to be at your peak performance.

So, leading into the game, the first thing you start off with is just having a regular sleep schedule.  A lot of adults have erratic schedules where you go to bed at ten o’clock, then later at two o’clock, and then, say, at midnight. But, having a consistent bedtime and having a consistent wake-up time is really important.  So, that would be the first thing.

And then, the second being … what my research looks at is a little bit on the extreme of having these athletes sleep ten-plus hours for weeks on end.  But, obviously, that’s not the most practical in an athletes schedule.  So, even if you can get 30 minutes [more sleep] on a regular basis and then maintain that over a couple weeks leading into your game or your competition … in this situation specifically, the Superbowl … then you’ll start to see a benefit slowly.  But, it would have to be done on a regular basis.

Obviously, the third thing would be looking at in your environment, having your room to be kind of like, what I like to call a “cave.” So, having your room as quiet and dark as possible. Do athletes need more sleep than the average person who doesn’t really do much of anything, in terms of exercise?

I get that question all the time. Actually it’s still to be determined. It’s definitely a very new area and were still trying to understand.  I mean the bottom line is that we don’t even know why we really sleep. There’s lots of theories on that and I get questions of, “does an athlete need more sleep than any other?”

Intuitively, I mean, you could guess and hypothesize that it would be, but I’m going to veer away from that—from speculating because I haven’t been able to dive into that question yet. So the answer is, “We just don’t know”?

We just don’t know .  Like I said:  intuitively, you would assume that an athlete might because of the energy expenditure and physiologically. But, we still are not sure. How can this all be related to an average person who just really needs to be ready for a test or presentation?

My research is specifically focused on sleep and athletic performance and so I don’t necessarily feel comfortable extrapolating away from the results we’ve looked at specifically in these teams.

But there is research out there that fellow colleagues have done looking at academic performance and sleep deprivation. The general thought is that: yes, sleep is very important for learning and memory.

And, you know, the amount and how the adequate amount of sleep, the quality of sleep, can have an impact on an individual’s performance whether it’s schoolwork or whether it’s daily functioning and levels of daytime sleepiness. But, I guess it stands to reason to a certain extent that, if an athlete’s getting the most out of their body and mind from getting the proper amount of sleep, everyone else would, too.

Right. And there was a study I was involved with in 2002 — this is actually where the athlete study comes from — looking at reducing sleep debt in undergraduates.  In that one, they were looking at things like learning and memory and also cognitive reaction time and seeing the impact it has on just typical undergraduates that are not specifically athletes.