My Q and A With Cheri Mah, Who's Helping Top Athletes Elevate Their Game by Getting More Sleep

03/16/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Top athletes are all about results. And as Cheri Mah has found, the world of sports is ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing one of the performance-enhancing tools that many of us overlook: sleep.

Mah is a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, and her findings have made her a highly sought expert in the sports world. In answer to my questions, she shared her insights on how athletes at every level can boost their performance by getting more sleep, what's behind the recent surge in interest in athletes' sleep habits and how non-athletes can incorporate these lessons into their lives.

Describe your research on sleep and athletic performance.

My fascination with sleep in athletes began back in 2002 when several collegiate swimmers walked into the lab with wide grins, having set multiple personal records while on a sleep schedule to eliminate accumulated sleep debt. The aim of that study was to examine cognitive performance, not to boost athletic performance, but their success begged the question: Does getting extra sleep also enhance athletic performance?

Over the subsequent 10 years, my research has focused on the relationship between sleep and performance in high-performing athletes. At the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory with William Dement, M.D., Ph.D., the father of modern sleep medicine, my research has examined the impact of sleep duration and sleep quality on cognitive and physical performance in athletes across a wide range of sports.

The detrimental consequences of chronic sleep loss resulting in an accumulated sleep debt are well known; however, I've been intrigued with the opposite: investigating the potential benefits of getting extra sleep (sleep extension) and whether improving sleep patterns can positively impact functioning and enhance performance.

My research has been predominantly with collegiate athletes and has demonstrated that multiple weeks of sleep extension significantly reduces athletes' accumulated sleep debt and results in faster reaction time, decreased fatigue levels as well as improved athletic performance measures. More recently, a study of NFL West Coast vs. East Coast team matchups has shown a significant circadian rhythm advantage for West Coast teams in evening game outcomes over the past 40 NFL seasons.

Why do you think sports leaders are pioneering sleep research efforts?

Let's face it, sleep is frequently sacrificed and is the first thing to go when we're in a crunch for time. For professional athletes, sleep is often overlooked, and inadequate rest results in accumulating fatigue over a long season. Now add frequent travel back and forth across the country to further compound the situation. This scenario can be especially challenging, as I've found that not many sports teams have addressed sleep and recovery needs beyond the suggestion to "get a good night of sleep" the night before a game.

In the past few years, however, some professional sports teams have started to recognize that optimizing sleep is an untapped area of sports performance and can be a competitive advantage. In my opinion, several factors have spurred recent interest in athletes' sleep, including increasing general awareness of the importance of healthy sleep as well as new sleep research highlighting the necessity of adequate rest in athletes. As one example, a study of semi-professional tennis players has shown impairments in serving accuracy following sleep loss. On the other hand, my research studying several weeks of sleep extension has shown a 9-percent increase in both basketball free throw and 3-point field goal shooting percentages as well as faster sprint times in collegiate basketball players. In short, some sports teams are beginning to realize there are untapped benefits in improving their athletes' sleep, and applying findings from sleep research can provide a competitive edge.

How are professional sports teams incorporating sleep health into their training, and why?

Teams have different approaches, perspectives and extent of integrating sleep strategies into their training program. In general, in my experiences working with professional sports teams, it is essential to educate not only athletes but also coaches and staff on the importance of healthy sleep and the negative effects of chronic sleep loss.

A big challenge for teams is traveling and scheduling; many teams in fact have few if any strategies to optimize travel or scheduling. Some teams have started to evaluate schedules, such as considering the effects of circadian rhythms on performance and incorporating strategies to minimize the effects of jet lag. Some teams like the Warriors even choose to rest their players on the road.

Since one's report of sleep often differs from objective measures of sleep duration and quality, some teams have publicly acknowledged that they have incorporated objective sleep monitoring to help optimize individual athlete sleep patterns.

These are just a few examples of how sports teams are beginning to incorporate sleep strategies and leverage sleep science. I'll leave it at that for now and not go into the specifics, to respect the privacy of teams who view my work with them as an advantage.

What can all people learn from athletes on the importance of sleep?

You may not be a professional athlete, but healthy and adequate sleep is critical for everyone, not just on the weekend to "catch up on sleep" but on a daily basis. Whether you're a student studying for an exam, a working professional aiming to be at your best or a recreational athlete looking to up your game, prioritizing your sleep is key. I recommend taking a minute to evaluate if you are getting sufficient sleep each night, assess your sleep environment and plan to make one change to improve your sleep tonight!