The Ultimate Performance-Enhancing Drug? Sleep

In this excerpt from her new best-seller, Thrive, Arianna Huffington argues that relaxation and stress reduction, not overwork, can enhance athletic performance.

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Arianna Huffington has spent years building a media empire that includes the popular website Huffington Post, and she is, by any measure, a success. But in 2007 she collapsed at her desk from stress and exhaustion, breaking a bone in her face and injuring an eye. That trauma was the beginning of a period of re-evaluation for Huffington about her priorities. She shares what she has learned and her transformative vision for a more rewarding life in her new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

The fundamental flaw at the heart of our misguided definition of success is the belief that overworking is the route to high performance and exceptional results. One easy way to see the folly of this belief is to look at the world of sports, where performance is objectively quantified and measurable. The sports world, the source of many metaphors in the business world—“ home run,” “slam dunk,” “dropping the ball,” “heavy hitters,” “step up to the plate,” and so forth—is, in fact, way ahead of the business world in its thinking about productivity and burnout.

Top athletes are all about results. And because sports are endlessly quantifiable, it’s often very easy to measure just what does and doesn’t work. The tough, hard-hitting world of elite sports is increasingly embracing meditation, yoga, mindfulness, enough sleep, and napping precisely because athletes and coaches realize that they work. And for the shrinking pool of doubters, there is perhaps no better way to see the tangible effects of mindfulness and stress-reduction tools on performance than in the world of sports.

One of the most interesting—and widely cited—studies came out of Stanford. Over ten years ago, Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, was looking into the impact of sleep on the brain. Several of the subjects in her research were on the Stanford swim team. They revealed to Mah that during the portions of the test when they were asked to get more sleep they swam better and set personal bests. So Mah set out to see how strong the connection was between increased sleep and increased performance.

Some early studies—using swimmers, football players, and tennis players—had pointed to a strong connection. So Mah ran a bigger study, which, as ESPN’s Peter Keating writes, “jolted the world of sports analytics by essentially showing that you can get safe, legal HGH [human growth hormone] just by shutting off the lights.”

Over three seasons, Mah had eleven Stanford basketball players keep a normal schedule for a few weeks and then, for five to seven weeks, had them take naps, eat carefully, and try to get ten hours of sleep a night. All eleven players saw improvements in their performance. Three-point shooting went up 9.2 percent. Free throws were up 9 percent. Not only did on-court performance improve, but players said their moods were lifted and that they generally felt less fatigued. “What these findings suggest is that these athletes were operating at a sub-optimal level,” Mah said. “They’d accumulated a sleep debt. … It’s not that they couldn’t function—they were doing fine—but that they might not have been at their full potential.” 

And all over the sports world, new practices are being introduced:

* In 2005, the U.S. Olympic Committee, in consultation with sleep expert Mark Rosekind, upgraded the rooms at its Colorado Springs training center. The renovation consisted of better mattresses, blackout curtains, and encouragement for the athletes to aim for nine or ten hours of sleep. And many have taken the advice to heart. “Sleep is huge in my sport,” says Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall. “Recovery is the limiting factor, not my ability to run hard. I typically sleep about eight to nine hours a night but then I make sure to schedule 90 minute ‘business meetings’— aka naps— into my day for an afternoon rest.”

* The Dallas Mavericks partnered with Fatigue Science from Vancouver to monitor players’ sleep and compare it with their on-court performance using a wristband device. Fatigue Science founder Pat Byrne explained the logic: “If a player is sleeping six hours a night and says, ‘I feel fine,’ we can actually say, ‘We can make your reaction time better if you’re sleeping eight hours.’ We can prove it to you, we can show you.”

* Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant will often linger at the team hotel before a game to get more sleep. He’s also done meditation—a practice brought in by former coach Phil Jackson. Jackson also taught the concept of “one breath, one mind” to his players and had them engage in exercises such as a day of silence. “I approached it with mindfulness,” he told Oprah. “As much as we pump iron and we run to build our strength up, we need to build our mental strength up … so we can focus … so we can be in concert with one another.”