Baseball season is nearly over and we’re approaching the championship season, so before you place your bets or pick your favorite team, it may be a good idea to find out what time each player hits the sack at night and wakes up in the morning. At least that’s the result of some preliminary research done by scientists at the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Their study showed that morning people – also referred to as early birds or ‘larks’ – tend to get their best batting in early in the morning, and as it gets later in the day their abilities tend to wane.
Though this may seem like an obvious conclusion that did not require extensive research, W. Christopher Winter, medical director of the program and lead author of the study defends his research and points out that it has never been carefully analyzed before. Though a fair amount of research has studied how increasing sleep quantity and quality may improve an athlete’s performance, little has been done that links a player’s genetic tendency towards early morning or late night alertness with their athletic ability.
Many of us believe that being a morning person or a night owl is a conscious choice, or perhaps that sleeping late is a reflection of laziness or lack of ambition, but scientific research has conclusively proven that our circadian rhythms – the natural sleep patterns that we follow – are as genetically programmed as the color of our eyes. Though the tendency to awaken early does become more common as we age, for the majority of our lives we tend to stick to the same rhythms. Those who adjust from being natural night owls to early risers have to work hard to do so. According to Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, “Circadian timing influences every aspect of our physiology, including our behavior and physical performance. And just as genetics governs different hair color for different people – brown, red, etc. – our genes partly determine our individual differences in peak performance at certain times of the day.”
In studying how this science ties in to baseball performance, Winter and his fellow researchers identified and selected 16 major league baseball players across seven different teams. The players had an average age of 29. Each was asked to answer a standardized sleep questionnaire, which was designed to identify their circadian rhythm. After analyzing the results, the researchers were able to determine that nine of the players were night owls and seven were larks. They then compared this information to each player’s performance statistics over two seasons, including information on the game’s starting times in their analysis. These times were adjusted to reflect additional time shifts caused by crossing time zones, as East Coast teams playing on the West Coast would feel as though they were playing later in the day than was reflected on the clock. What the study revealed was that those who were identified as larks did better and had higher batting averages in games that started before 2:00 in the afternoon than did those who had identified as night owls, and conversely night owls had higher batting averages in games that began after 2:00 than did those who had been revealed to be morning people. The study’s results were presented at the SLEEP 2011 meeting in Min
neapolis, Minnesota a few years back, and they received a great deal of interest from attendees.
Winter says, “For everything the body does, there is a natural peak and trough.” This is obviously true of athletic performance based on the study’s results. The more wakeful a person is, the better they will perform.
The question that this research begs is whether that means that people who are night owls should seek out careers or work shifts that have them working in the midnight hours rather than early in the morning, or can people break free of their genetic proclivity and shift from night owl to morning person and vice versa?
There are certain things that can be done to adjust one’s internal clock, including shifting our exposure to light and darkness to fool the body and brain into thinking that it is earlier or later. The body can be trained to wake up earlier by making a slow shift, but it is important to remember that because we are each born with a specific genetic code that predetermines our natural tendencies, shifting from a morning schedule to a nighttime schedule may be a bit challenging, a bit like swimming upstream.
Other things that can be done to help in shifting your body’s natural rhythms include cutting out stimulants such as alcohol, which can disrupt sleep cycles, and caffeine, which can stimulate our nervous systems and throw off the effects that we are trying to achieve. Dr. Ellenbogen says, “Paying attention to these individual preferences, and the factors that influence them – like et lag or light exposure – we can maximize our abilities, on and off the playing field.”
Though this study was aimed at examining athletic performance in professional athletes, it can be applied to anybody, and may be used as an indicator of different professional performance levels, ranging from teaching to corporate executives. The difference is that performance levels in professions that are not governed by statistics are more difficult to quantify in terms of success. Still, it is important for people to be self-aware about their natural tendencies so that they can use them to their best advantage, as well as be aware of when they are not likely to be at their best. Ellenbogen says, “We really have traditionally viewed sleep as a light switch – that basically when the light is on your brain is working, things are happening, and when you go to sleep you turn off the switch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sleep is its own dynamic force – we’re really starting to get to the bottom of what’s going on in those eight hours, and I believe it is the foundation for the next frontier of athletic performance enhancement.”