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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

* When Michael Jordan was the star of the Chicago Bulls, the team worked with meditation teacher George Mumford. “When we are in the moment and absorbed with the activity, we play our best,” Mumford explained. “That happens once in a while, but it happens more often if we learn how to be more mindful.” And a video of four-time NBA MVP LeBron James meditating during a timeout became a hit on YouTube.

* Former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams used to meditate before every game, and later ended up teaching a class on meditation at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “This is my passion,” he said. “I think a lot of people are so used to being stressed, they don’t realize they’re stressed. And I was one of those people.”

* Tennis great Ivan Lendl used mental exercises to deepen his concentration. He would schedule downtime for relaxing and recharging often by taking naps. 

Since Lendl became Andy Murray’s coach in 2012, the four-time grand slam runner-up won the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon in 2013. Charlie Rose, in an interview with Murray, described what it’s like watching Murray and other great pro players: “You see the ball coming off the racket … it almost looks like slow motion.”

What a great image to hold in mind: a performer at the top of his game—rested, recharged, and focused; time slowing down, the ball moving in slow motion, allowing him to make the best decision and execute it. I have found that mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques do the exact same thing for the rest of us. In a rushed, harried, stressed-out state, the onslaught of what we have to do can go by in a jumbled blur. But rested and focused, what’s coming next appears to slow down, allowing us to manage it with calm and confidence. 

As Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, says, with exercise, it’s during rest and downtime that muscle growth occurs. To achieve peak physical fitness, we push ourselves hard in short bursts of high intensity, and then we rest and recover. And that’s exactly how we should live our lives for overall performance and well-being.

“The same rhythmic movement serves us well all day long, but instead we live mostly linear, sedentary lives,” Schwartz writes. “We go from email to email, and meeting to meeting, almost never getting much movement, and rarely taking time to recover mentally and emotionally. … The most effective way to operate at work is like a sprinter, working with single-minded focus for periods of no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break. That way when you’re working, you’re really working, and when you’re recovering, you’re truly refueling the tank.” 

As with elite athletes who put in the necessary preparation—both mentally and physically—you’ll see a tangible difference in your work performance. In a study last year at the University of Washington, computer scientist David Levy had a group of human resources managers go through an eight-week mindfulness and meditation course. He then gave them some challenging office tasks, involving email, instant messages, and word processing. Members of the group who had gone through the training could concentrate for longer stretches of time, were less distracted, and, most important, had lower stress levels. “Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym,” Levy said. “It strengthens your attention muscle.” 

We don’t have to have a four-foot vertical leap to be like Michael Jordan and perform at our best. All we need is the commitment to get enough sleep, take time to recharge our mental and emotional batteries, put away our phones and laptops and tablets regularly, and try to introduce some stress-reduction tools into our lives. Mindfulness, yoga, prayer, meditation, and contemplation aren’t just tools reserved for retreats over long weekends anymore—they are the ultimate everyday performance enhancers. 

Excerpted with permission from Thrive, by Arianna Huffington. Available from Harmony Books. Copyright © 2014.