Circadian Factors Influence Athletes' Performance

Megan Brooks

June 15, 2021

Factors that influence circadian rhythm affect the performance of collegiate athletes, new research shows.

An analysis of college football games showed that game time and direction of travel had a significant impact on performance. In addition, a case study of a women's college basketball team showed that team performance at away games was influenced by miles traveled and the number of games played consecutively.

A combination of factors likely have a bearing on differences in performance, study investigator Sean Pradhan, PhD, assistant professor of sports management and business analytics in the School of Business Administration at Menlo College in Atherton, California, told Medscape Medical News.

"For instance, in our study of men's college football teams, the results may be driven by circadian misalignment, especially when teams need to travel out of their home time zones for away games," he explained.

"In our case study of a women's basketball team, in which the team studied did not frequently travel out of state or across multiple time zones, it could be that the disruption to the student-athletes' schedules was affecting their usual sleep patterns and, thus, their performances," Pradhan said.

"Naturally, there are other variables that affect performance that we could not easily consider, such as data on actual sleep behavior, injuries, class schedules, workload, among others," he noted.

The findings were presented at SLEEP 2021: 35th Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Impact on Scoring

Previous research in professional basketball and baseball shows that traveling up to 3 hours westward can hamper performance as a result of circadian disadvantages. Less is known about the influence of travel at the collegiate level.

Pradhan and co-investigator Micah Kealaiki-Sales, also with Menlo College, analyzed data from 1909 National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I college football games played by 64 "Power Five" conference teams during the 2014 to 2019 regular seasons.

They found that away teams that played in the afternoon allowed 5% more points and forced 13% more opponent turnovers than those that played in the evening.

Teams traveling eastward to away games threw 39% more interceptions than those traveling in the same time zone. There also was a significant interaction between direction of travel and time of day for points allowed and a marginal interaction for points scored.

In the second study, investigators analyzed data from 110 road games played over the 10 seasons from 2010 to 2020 by a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics women's college basketball team.

They found that the team scored significantly more points and won more games when traveling fewer miles away from their home city.

Performance was also enhanced by having more time between games played away from home. The team blocked significantly more opponents' shots and had a higher field-goal percentage when there were more days between games.

"In general, the impact of these travel factors could be attenuated by preadaption to the time zone of an away game (if applicable), more consistent sleep schedules, and potentially, even load management via play/minutes restrictions to promote recovery," said Pradhan.

Reached for comment, Nitun Verma, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, noted, "High physical and mental performance has been affected by suboptimal sleep, especially among professional sports teams. There are more studies on baseball than football, so this is particularly interesting. It is intuitive that this would carry over to college teams as well, and this study is a step in the right direction."

The research had no specific funding. Pradhan and Verma have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2021: 35th Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies: Abstracts 287 and 283. Presented June 9, 2021.

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