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Sleeping for success: Specialist helps Nationals turn Z’s into W’s

The Nationals’ Adam Eaton celebrates his two-run home run with Victor Robles during the eighth inning of Game 2 of the World Series. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

It’s hard to list every one of the factors that has put the Washington Nationals in the World Series, but sleep seems to be one of them.

Dr. Meeta Singh, a sleep expert from the Henry Ford Medical Center in the Detroit area, has been working with professional sports teams for years on their sleep routines, helping to maximize athletes’ performance in their waking hours. She told WTOP she’s been working with the Nationals since they reached out to her after she spoke at the 2017 Winter Meetings.

Singh told WTOP that a lot of the physical and mental attributes of athletic success are wasted when a player doesn’t get enough good sleep.

“Sleep is like a circuit board with one switch,” Singh said. “And if that one switch fails, almost everything else will also break down.”

“We know that lack of sleep makes [your reactions] slower, less accurate; it affects your decision-making; it contributes to errors,” which can show up not only on the scoreboard but on the injury list. “It even affects the amount of growth hormone and testosterone that’s secreted.”

That’s important, she pointed out, because teams invest a lot of money in making sure players eat right, but you can’t get the maximum benefits of nutrition without enough sleep.

The grind

Singh started working with the Nationals after they reached out to her following a talk she gave at the Winter Meetings in 2017. After impressing upon teams the importance of sufficient sleep, she continued by identifying three common problems areas for athletes: making sleep schedules, managing the challenges of travel and winding down at night.

“The whole point of creating a schedule is taking as much of the randomness as possible out of the equation,” Singh said. “You can show them where the sleep opportunities are, and make sure they get enough sleep so that they’re awake and refreshed when they’re supposed to be.”

Being a professional athlete might be well-paying, but it’s a grind, especially for baseball players. They play 162 games a season — more in the playoffs — and they travel every few days.

A player for an East Coast team playing in a night game on the West Coast could be playing until what his body thinks is 2 a.m.; a West Coast player in an afternoon game on the East Coast could be staring down 100-mph fastballs at 10 a.m.

Singh gave the Detroit Free Press a recent example of how she’s helped the Nationals:

The Nats beat the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on the afternoon of Oct. 12 in St. Louis; the next day was an off-day, then the two teams would meet at Nationals Park on the night of Oct. 14. It’s easy to think the best strategy would be to rush out, even if it meant getting in late at night, and have a full day off at home before playing Game 3. But Singh advised the team to spend the night in St. Louis after Game 2 and fly home during the off-day.

They won Game 3 on their way to a sweep of the series.

Singh had advice about winding down for bedtime that could also apply to those of us whose jobs don’t require knowledge of the infield fly rule:

She added that “reading is an acceptable [part] of winding down,” as long as it’s not on a screen.

Grabbing a nap

Napping is an important part of staying fresh, and Singh detailed three durations of naps that work well for staying sharp — and one that doesn’t.

A “power nap” of 15-25 minutes helps, she said: “You wake up from light sleep; you feel refreshed.”

A 35-minute snooze gives you “a little bit of Stage 2 sleep; that’s also refreshing.”

And the 90-minute nap is “The granddaddy of naps”: A lot of NBA players — no strangers to sleep challenges either — do it as well, she said. “You get an entire sleep cycle and it’s very refreshing.”

You don’t want a one-hour nap, though; that will end right in the middle of a cycle. “You wake up from deep sleep and you might be groggy.”

She added that two to three hours before the game is the best time to nap.

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