Have you ever struggled learning a new skill, like a backhand in tennis, but a few days later you gave it another shot and nailed it? In your head, you may have thought, "Why didn't I do it like that before?" Once you get the hang of that new movement, it seems obvious. Your golf swing feels connected. A kipping pull-up is suddenly possible.
Rarely are people able to pound away with pure practice and acquire that next level of athletic advancement. It often seems like there's magic to stepping away.
What is happening when an athlete takes a break, then comes back to a skill with seemingly newfound talent? The answer may lie in the mystical moments that unfold after approximately seven hours of sleep.
Dr. James Maas, a sleep doctor and author of Power Sleep, believes performance is tied to a pattern of heightened brain activity that explodes during a Stage 2 REM cycle. These Sleep Spindles are "a cascade of calcium into your motor cortex" binding the motor responses needed for performing well. During this cycle your brain is consolidating muscle movements and connecting new activities to existing learned motor behaviors with which your body is already familiar. Basically, it's improving. Maas says after practicing or getting some coaching then sleeping for seven hours, you should improve that skill by 20 percent.
For example, if you are learning a slap shot for hockey and have played golf for years, during Sleep Spindles, your brain is extracting anything valuable from your golf swing and connecting that information to slap shots.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense; if Tyrannosaurus Rex invades the cave, you have to learn to climb trees for safety. Your brain is going to do everything possible to source the skills necessary to keep you alive. Your Sleep Spindles are connecting all the puzzle pieces in an effort to give you a physical advantage over predators. In the modern world, we benefit from this process and can use it to our advantage.
There's no explanation why Sleep Spindles start simmering when they do, but we know this process will not fire without approximately seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Dr. Maas tells a story of an Olympic hopeful ice skater. Her mother and father knew she had the potential to make the team but she was not advancing and progressing to the next level. They came to Dr. Maas and shared their struggle. He looked at her strenuous schedule and told the parents to stop taking her to morning practices. She was getting up around 5 a.m. and having to be at practice sometime after six. In young adults, natural circadian rhythm makes it so their sleep schedule is actually from around 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. She was essentially practicing in the middle of the night and was not getting seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, which didn't allow her Sleep Spindles to kick-in and work their magic. Fast-forward and not only did she start landing the triple axel, she won a gold medal.
If you're looking for a performance advantage you should really consider evaluating your sleep schedule and make sure you are getting at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.
In our society, it often seems like a badge of honor when people say they don't sleep much. But many high-performers take sleep seriously and, even if they don't know about the science, understand the advantages it gives them on a day-to-day basis.
Interested in more sleep science? Watch Dr. Maas' speech.