Consistently getting eight to ten hours of sleep a night is the best strategy, but Americans average an anemic six and a half, according to a 2008 National Sleep Foundation poll. Even with a few eight-to-tens a week, the cumulative effects of rest-less nights add up. Over time, this deficit can lead to what scientists call sleep debt, a condition in which you’re chronically fatigued. The promising news is that you can actually bank extra hours and eliminate even long-term debt, which translates into a serious competitive advantage.
Working with college athletes since 2005, Stanford University researcher Cheri Mah found that being debt free is key to peak physical fitness. As part of an ongoing study, Mah modified the sleep schedules of healthy students on Stanford’s swim and basketball teams for ten weeks; athletic performance was gauged after each regular practice. The students maintained their regular sleeping patterns for the first two weeks, then extended their sleep to ten hours a day for six weeks, which effectively cleared their debt, Mah says. During the last two weeks of the study, the students adjusted their own schedules to find their ideal sleep times. "Many of the athletes participating in this study have set new personal records, season-best times, and broken long-standing Stanford and American records," Mah says.
But that doesn’t mean you should sleep your life away. Once your debt is cleared, you can perform optimally on a standard eight to ten hours a night. Luckily, Mah’s sleep-extension plan is easy to follow outside the lab (see "The Payback Plan," below left). And researchers speculate that the benefits may extend beyond athletic performance. "You can expect to see mood improvement, decreases in fatigue, and increases in energy," Mah says. "You’ll see faster reaction time. Some individuals tell me they’re even able to recover faster from injuries."