The journal “Current Biology” recently published a British study involving “competition-level” athletes. Scientists concluded that choosing the right time to work out could be more beneficial than taking testosterone or performance-enhancing drugs.
The research showed that night owls who sleep late into the morning are able to sprint up to 26 percent faster when they wait until evening to do so.
Those findings came as a surprise to many experts, according to The New York Times, because past studies suggested nearly everyone performs better in the evening. The new data indicates early birds exercise more effectively at about noon. “Intermediate risers” are at their best in the afternoon.
The study, led by Dr. Roland Brandstaetter of England’s University of Birmingham, tracked 20 field-hockey players and 22 squash players who engaged in their sports six times per day.
The Times reported: “The early risers tended to wake up, on average, around 7 a.m. on weekdays and 7:30 on weekends; intermediate risers got up about 8 on weekdays and 9:10 on weekends; and the late risers awoke about 9:30 on weekdays and 11 on weekends. The researchers evaluated their performances with measures involving sprinting tests and, for the squash players, a test of concentration and alertness in which the athletes had to hit a ball into a small area.”
The results make sense, according to Dr. Benjamin D. Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas. “Every athlete knows that there are times of day when they perform best,” he told the Times.
Others, however, noted that the study was small in terms of the number of participants. They called for further research, with better performance testing methods, to confirm the findings.
As the Times pointed out, experts already were aware of the role a person’s biological clock plays in body temperature, heart rate, reaction time and concentration. The researchers’ conclusions provide confirmation, according to Kenneth P. Wright Jr., director of the sleep and chronobiology laboratory at the University of Colorado.
Fortunately for competitive athletes, their biological (or circadian) clocks can be adjusted. They can alter peak performance times by adjusting the light in their homes and eating meals at different times of day, Brandstaetter reported. Another technique is to get up earlier or later in the morning, which requires changing the bedtime to ensure adequate sleep.
Hirofumi Tanaka, an exercise researcher at the University of Texas, told the Times: “There is no question that circadian rhythms affect sports performance.” But he cautioned that studying the phenomenon is difficult because “we cannot replicate the highly motivated and competitive situations in the laboratory.”
Another expert joked that “it would be handy (for sports coaches) to know the phenotype of all (their) team members, (to) predict who would be playing well at various times of day.”
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