You might think attending the national sleep (APSS) meetings would not provide secrets to winning at sports. No. Recognize the importance of biological intelligence—how your body uses and acquires information—and you might be proven wrong. For survival, sleep is like food. For performance, activity requires rest, a fundamental biological yin-yang. Knowhow to optimize and modify human rest requirements, and the tiny differences between winner and loser in professional sports can become tipped to your advantage.
It Looks Like a Coffee Pot
This year’s keynote speaker was Stanford physiologist Dr. Craig Heller. That speech mainly dealt with overexcitation models of autism. However, Professor Heller is perhaps best known for “the glove,” his method of improving muscle performance.
He told me that for many years he was trying to understand what signal told muscles that enough was enough, that it was time to stop. It turned out a major one was temperature. If fever got too high muscles stop moving (temperature is also a critical controller of sleep and other rest activities.) It makes sense. Too high a temperature and you cause muscle damage and cell death. It bears comparison with what happens in a car engine or battery. Too much heat and they fall apart.
What Heller thought about was—what if I get the heat out quickly? Dump it? What then can muscles do?
Working from his research in animals, he realized that much heat is lost through footpads (in the human case, soles and palms) and oral areas. If he could dump enough heat, muscles could keep working. And working.
They could then be conditioned to become stronger and more versatile.
So he came up with “the glove.” He doesn’t like its design very much, and hopes to tweak it. But by using a heat sink, and getting heat quickly out of the human body, athletes can build up their muscle power.
You will not see “the glove” sold at Walmart. Tinkering with human physiology can be dangerous. Doing it with some of the world’s best athletes, carefully monitored by their trainers and physiologists, is different. The most recent team to use Heller’s invention is the Golden State Warriors.
The glove has not been subjected to proper clinical trials. Clearly it is not perfect. It did take the Golden State Warriors five games to vanquish the LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA playoffs. Yet knowing how to use biological intelligence intelligently offers many compensations. One is how to effectively use biological clocks.
East is Worst and West is Best
A cottage industry has grown up around biological clocks and professional sports team performance during the last twenty years. Many prominent circadian researchers have gotten in on the action.
One paper in this year’s meeting looked at the topic of away games in Major League Baseball. Clearly, teams undergoing jet lag perform less well. Yet the effects are virtually always greater when teams travel east rather than west.
The interesting issue is why.
The simple answer is that the basic human biological clock runs several minutes longer than 24 hours. Recent estimates have varied between 24 hours six minutes and 24 hours 12 minutes. The retinal ganglion cells in our eyes, which monitor light but do not project to the visual cortex, are a basic site entraining us to our planet’s 24-hour cycle. Sunlight resets us daily to internal clocks that run very, very close to 24 hours in every cell in the body. Sadly for future Martian colonists, Mars’ daytime of 24 hours and 39 minutes is longer than our internal rhythm, and will be much harder to crack.
But having a longer clock makes it easier for people to adjust traveling west across time zones—where our biological clock effectively gets longer than 24 hours—than to the shortening effects of going east. Most folks will tell you that jet lag is worst going east, especially because it is hard to get properly timed readjustment light in the new site (if you arrive in the morning you probably want to use sunglasses for a while,) than in going west.
One take home: Jet lag is approximately as powerful as the home team advantage. No wonder precise timing of light and use of melatonin has become popular throughout professional sports.
Another research paper studied a subject of increasing importance—the impact of twitter use during the night. In this case, it looked at NBA players.
The results? The more twitter activity, the less minutes people played. And the less effective the player. The authors went so far as to say level of twitter use could be regarded as a rather good surrogate for overall sleep loss.
Is anyone in Washington listening?
The difference between winning and losing in professional sports is often extremely close. Knowing how to use biological intelligence intelligently can move people past that line. Every moment of life is a teaching moment to the body. Biological clocks, the use of Craig Heller's glove, the form and timing of sleep, are just a few of the many factors that may change defeat into victory. The body can be educated like the brain. Whether your goal is better performance or happier times, treating the body as intelligent can make it more intelligent, capable, and satisfied.
And you might do better at your next tennis match.