What is the secret to Usain Bolt’s record-breaking speed?

1: The margin of victory in professional athletics is often slight.  In the Olympics, the difference between the gold medal winner and the last-place finisher is often only seconds or even fractions of a second.

“On this team, we fight for that inch,” Al Pacino growls in Any Given Sunday [aside: Great speech!  Terrible movie….].  

Indeed.  Finding a competitive advantage is critical.  Which is why Sleep Researcher Dr. Matthew Walker‘s phone never stops ringing.

“Standing in front of the manager, staff, and players, I tell them about one of the most sophisticated, potent, and powerful-not to mention legal-performance enhancers that has real game-winning potential: sleep,” writes Matthew in his terrific book Why We Sleep.

2: Matthew’s guidance is clear: “Obtain anything less than eight hours of sleep a night, and especially less than six hours a night, and the following happens: physical exhaustion drops by 10 to 30 percent, and aerobic output is significantly reduced,” he notes.  

Matthew measured the sleep of NBA star Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors, comparing games when he slept more than eight hours vs. those when we slept less than eight hours.  The data speaks for itself:  a 29% increase in points per minute, a 9% increase in free-throw percentage, a 37% decrease in turnovers, and a 43% decrease in fouls committed.

“Add to this marked impairments in cardiovascular, metabolic, and respiratory capabilities that hamper an under slept body,” notes Matthew, “including faster rates of lactic acid buildup, reductions in blood oxygen saturation, and converse increases in blood carbon dioxide, due in part to reduction in the amount of air that the lungs can expire.” 

What’s the greatest fear for competitive athletes and their teams, which view their players as prized financial investments?  Injury risk.  

Once again, the data is clear: Over the course of a season, with an average of 6 hours of sleep, the percentage chance of injury is 73%, 7 hours: 60%, 8 hours: 34%, and 9 hours: 18%.

3: Naps can also improve physical performance.  Matthew’s notes: “Daytime naps that contain sufficient numbers of sleep spindles also offer significant motor skill memory improvement, together with a restoring benefit of perceived energy and reduced muscle fatigue.”

Perhaps the best evidence of all?

Superstar Olympic Gold medalist Usain Bolt is known to take naps in the hours before breaking world records, and before Olympic finals in which he won gold.

More tomorrow!

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Reflection:  Am I getting enough sleep?  Do I prioritize sleep?   

 Action: Track my sleep over the next two weeks, using a Fitbit, Oura ring, or by manually tracking.

Why practice doesn’t make perfect

1: Dr. Matthew Walker had just finished delivering a public lecture on sleep when a distinguished-looking gentleman dressed in a tweed suit jacket approached the podium.   

“As a pianist,” he said, “I have an experience that seems far too frequent to be chance.  I will be practicing a particular piece, even late into the evening, and I cannot seem to master it.  Often, I make the same mistake at the same place in a particular movement.  I go to bed frustrated. But when I wake up the next morning and sit back down at the piano, I can just play perfectly,” Matthew shares in his powerful book Why We Sleep.

The gentlemen’s inquiry intrigued Matthew.  He replied it was a fascinating idea, but he knew of no scientific evidence to support the claim.  

Ultimately, it sent him on a three-year journey to discover the answer.  He and his colleagues eventually ran an experiment taking a large group of right-handed individuals and taught them to to type a number sequence on a keyboard with their left hand, such as 4-1-3-2-4, as quickly and as accurately as possible. 

“Like learning a piano scale, subjects practiced the motor skill sequence over and over again, for a total of twelve minutes, taking short breaks throughout,” he writes.  Not surprisingly, the participants got better with time.  

2: This is where it gets interesting.

The participants were divided into two groups.  Half learned the sequence in the morning.  They were tested twelve hours later after remaining awake for the rest of the day.  The other half learned the sequence in the evening.  They were retested the following morning, also after a twelve-hour delay, but one that contained a full eight-hour night of sleep.

The results?

“Those who remained awake across the day showed no evidence of a significant improvement in performance,” Matthew writes.  “However, fitting with the pianist’s original description, those who were tested after the very same time delay of twelve hours, but that spanned a night of sleep, showed a striking 20 percent jump in performance speed and a near 35 percent improvement in accuracy.”

The surprises don’t stop there.  Those participants who learned the sequence early in the day, who showed no improvement that evening, also experienced an identical improvement in performance the following morning after a full night’s sleep.

As it turns out, practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice, with sleep, makes perfect.

3: The amount of sleep we get is a key driver in this equation.  “The increases in speed and accuracy, underpinned by efficient automaticity, were directly related to the amount of stage 2 NREM, especially in the last two hours of an eight-hour night of sleep (e.g., from five to seven a.m., should you have fallen asleep at eleven p.m.),” Matthew writes.   

There is a steep price to pay by those of us who cut short our sleep.

“Those last two hours of sleep are precisely the window that many of us feel it is okay to cut short to get a jump start on the day,” Matthew notes.  “As a result, we miss out of this feast of late-morning sleep spindles.”

More tomorrow.
_________________________

Reflection:  Am I getting enough sleep?  Do I prioritize sleep?    

Action: Track my sleep over the next two weeks, using a Fitbit, Oura ring, or by manually tracking. 

What are the benefits of sleep on our brain?

1: Shakespeare was right.  

Writing in Macbeth, he tells us sleep is “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

Four hundred years later, the science now shows how sleep has a seemingly miraculous effect on our ability to learn and remember. Yesterday, we looked at a controlled experiment in which those who took a nap after doing intensive learning were able to recall 20 percent more information than those who did not.  

What exactly is going on here?  Why does sleep so powerfully impact the learning ability of the human brain?

2: In his book Why We Sleep, Dr. Matthew Walker describes how the hippocampus section of our brain collects our experiences during any given day; it provides “a short-term reservoir, or temporary information store, for accumulating new memories.”

There is a snag, however.  Our hippocampus has a limited storage capacity.  When it’s full, it’s full.

The good news?  While we sleep, inside our brain, there are “short, powerful bursts of electrical activity called sleep spindles,” Matthew writes.  “The more sleep spindles an individual obtained during the nap, the greater the restoration of their learning when they woke up.”

Looking deep into the brain, Matthew and his colleagues are able to see how our sleep modifies the information architecture of our brain: information stored in our short-term memory is moved to a different part of the brain designed for longer-term retention.  

“The pulses kept weaving a path back and forth between the hippocampus, with its short-term, limited storage space, and the far larger, long-term storage site of the cortex (analogous to a large-memory hard drive),” Matthew observes. “In that moment, we had just become privy to an electrical transaction occurring in the quiet secrecy of sleep: one that was shifting fact-based memories from the temporary storage depot (the hippocampus) to a long-term secure vault (the cortex).”

Sleep helps to “future-proof” our memories while “delightfully” clearing out our hippocampus providing “plentiful free space” for new short-term memories.  

“We awake with both yesterday’s experiences safely filed away and having regained [our] short-term storage capacity for new learning throughout that following day. The cycle repeats each day and night,” Matthew notes. “We and other research groups have since repeated this study across a full night of sleep and replicated the same finding: the more sleep spindles an individual has at night, the greater the restoration of overnight learning ability come the next morning.”

3: There is a problem, however, for those of us who do not get enough sleep.

“Of broader societal relevance, the concentration of NREM-sleep spindles is especially rich in the late-morning hours, sandwiched between long periods of REM sleep, Matthew notes. “Sleep six hours or less and you are shortchanging the brain of a learning restoration benefit that is normally performed by sleep spindles.”

More tomorrow.

_________________________

Reflection:  Am I getting enough sleep?  Do I prioritize sleep?    

Action: Track my sleep over the next two weeks, using a Fitbit, Oura ring, or by manually tracking.

A simple way to improve your life?

1: “Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious,” writes Matthew Walker

Sound too good to be true?  If it were a new drug, many of us would be skeptical and suspicious.  But it’s not a new drug.  

What is this amazing breakthrough?  These are the proven benefits of a full night of sleep.

“While it may sound hyperbolic, nothing about this fictitious advertisement would be inaccurate,” writes Matthew in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. “The evidence supporting these claims has been documented in more than 17,000 well-scrutinized scientific reports to date.”

And yet, all too often, we (including yours truly), avoid the nightly invitation to receive the full dose of this powerful therapy.

With potentially terrible consequences.  Which we will explore in future posts.

2: Today, we will look at one of the many advantages which sleep provides our brains: memory, which is “especially impressive, and particularly well understood,” according to Matthew.  “Sleep has proven itself time and again as a memory aid: both before learning, to prepare your brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting.”

While we are awake, our brains are continually acquiring and absorbing new information.  For fact-based information which involves memorizing information like someone’s name, a new phone number, or where we parked your car, a region of our brain called the hippocampus helps collect our experiences and binds the details together.  It provides “a short-term reservoir, or temporary information store, for accumulating new memories.”

There is a problem, however.  

Our hippocampus has a limited storage capacity similar to a USB memory stick.  When we exceed its limit, we “run the risk of not being able to add more information or, equally bad, overwriting one memory with another,” Matthew explains.

Our brains solve this quandary through the magic of sleep which refreshes its ability to make new memories. 

3: Matthew and his colleagues proved this hypotheses by running an experiment involving daytime naps.  “We recruited a group of healthy young adults and randomly divided them into a nap group and a no-nap group,” he writes.  “At noon, all the participants underwent a rigorous session of learning (one hundred face-name pairs) intended to tax the hippocampus.

“As expected, both groups performed at comparable levels.  Soon after, the nap group took a ninety-minute siesta in the sleep laboratory with electrodes placed on their heads to measure sleep.  The no-nap group stayed awake in the laboratory and performed menial activities, such as browsing the Internet or playing board games,” notes Matthew.  

At six p.m., the researchers had all of the participants perform “another round of intensive learning where they tried to cram yet another set of new facts into their short-term storage reservoirs (another one hundred face-name pairs).”

The question was straight-forward.  Would the learning ability of the human brain decline with continued time throughout the day.  And, if so, would sleep reverse this saturation effect thereby restoring the brain’s learning ability?

The results?

“Those who were awake throughout the day became progressively worse at learning, even though their ability to concentrate remained stable (determined by separate attention and response time tests), Matthew reports.  “In contrast, those who napped did markedly better, and actually improved in their capacity to memorize facts.”

Those who took a nap had a 20 percent learning advantage. 

More tomorrow.

__________________________

Reflection:  Am I getting enough sleep?  Do I prioritize sleep?    

Action: Track my sleep over the next two weeks, using a Fitbit, Oura ring, or by manually tracking. 

And today started last night.

This week we are exploring philosopher Brian Johnson’s idea of creating masterpiece days. Brian suggests we focus on the beginning and end of our day because this is where we have maximum control.  

Today we begin looking at our evening habits and practices, what Brian calls our “PM Bookend.”

Which starts with this insight: how we end yesterday will directly impact today.  Brian encourages us to make the connection between our nighttime habits and how we start the next day. By being awesome tonight, we will “high five” ourselves in the morning.  

Step one: get a good night’s sleep.  Brian has summarized over 500 books with his Philosopher’s Notes. So, it would be wise to pay attention when he tells us of all the books in his library, his #1 recommendation is Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD.  

Matthew tells us getting a good night’s sleep is not just a pillar of health, it is the foundation on which all the other pillars rest.  E. Joseph Cossman says: “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”

Simply put: life changes when we get enough sleep.  

We humans need between seven and eight hours of sleep each night.  That’s not time in bed.  That’s asleep time.  Which means we likely need to be in bed another hour.  

What gets measured gets done.  So, purchasing a Fitbit, Apple watch or Aura ring to track our sleep is certainly something to consider.

Brian suggests we ask ourselves: What game am I really playing?  Do I want to be energized or fatigued in the morning?  Do I want to be optimized or entertained?  Am I focused on other people’s fictional dramas or on actualizing my potential?  Am I going for the good mood or the good life?  

We want to make these decisions consciously.

What virtue does science tells us is most correlated with a deep sense of happiness and flourishing?

Zest.  

And, sleep is the #1 practice which impacts zest.  

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Reflection:  Am I happy with my overall level of energy?  What nighttime practices would I like to alter or delete?  

Action:  Take inventory of my current PM routine.  What’s serving me well?  What isn’t?