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All athletes, both pro and weekend, look for that training edge that will boost their strength, improve their accuracy or extend their endurance. In their search for the perfect ergogenic aid, they may be overlooking an obvious (and free) strategy: get more sleep. One scientist, Stanford's Cheri Mah, has been on a multiyear crusade to test, prove and publicize the athletic benefits of additional hours of slumber.

In her most recent research, Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, tested college football players on the Stanford University team to see if more pillow time would improve their performance. They were asked to maintain their current sleep patterns for the first two weeks of the season (most getting less than 8 hours per night). Baseline times for the 20-yard shuttle run and the 40-yard dash were taken, along with scores for the Profile of Mood States (POMS) to monitor changes in mood, and the Epworth Sleepiness Scale to measure just what it sounds like, sleepiness.

Then, with some accommodations to their daily schedule, they were asked to sleep as much as possible, with a minimum of ten hours per night, for the next eight weeks. After retesting, Mah found some pretty significant changes.

The shuttle sprint times went from an average of 4.71 seconds to 4.61 seconds while the 40-yard dash also improved an average of .10 seconds, from 4.99 to 4.89. While it may seem small, these are actually impressive reductions over just two months. As expected, the sleepiness and fatigue levels of the players also went down significantly.

"Sleep duration may be an important consideration for an athlete's daily training regimen," Mah said. "Furthermore, sleep extension also may contribute to minimizing the effects of accumulated sleep deprivation and thus could be a beneficial strategy for optimal performance."

The research was presented at SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

For the last several years, Mah has applied her theory to several Stanford sports teams. Last year, she showed that more sleep helped the women's tennis team sprint faster and be more accurate in their serves. In 2008, Stanford swimmers were quicker in the water, quicker off the starting block and quicker in their turns after more time in bed. Men's basketball players became faster and more accurate shooters after they were tested in 2007.

"Traditionally, elite athletes dedicate numerous hours to daily practice, strength training, and conditioning as well as work closely with nutritionists in hopes of optimizing their athletic performance," said Mah. "However, very little, if any, attention is focused on an athlete's sleeping patterns and habits.

Her mission is to convince coaches that something as simple as shut-eye can provide a genuine competitive edge. Of course, convincing student-athletes to stay in bed another few hours in the morning shouldn't be an issue.

Dan Peterson writes about sports science at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental.

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