There is a growing interest in the use of light to improve athletic performance. Light is the most important external synchronizer for the circadian rhythms in the body, rhythms that are internally driven variations in an individual’s biological and behavioral functions that cycle over roughly a 24-hour period. As an athlete’s unique circadian rhythm affects individual performance, light can be used to modulate this rhythm as well as having direct beneficial effect on alertness and wellbeing.
Balancing training, work commitments, family and personal life is a difficult challenge for an elite athlete and many times sleep pay the price. Studies report a decrease in performance regarding endurance performance. Diminished motivation due to sleep deprivation is thought to be part of the explanation for that. Evening performance seems to be influenced to a greater extent by sleep deprivation than morning performance⁸.
Sleep deprivation also affects learning. Quality sleep on the first night following training is critical and scientific research suggest that sleep-dependent motor sequence learning depends on quality sleep within the first 24 hours after training⁹.
For athletes sleep deprivation can have several negative effects on performance. Improving sleep and adapting diurnal rhythm to circadian chronotype can be beneficial for athletic performance. Good sleep and even sleep extension can be advantageous as seen in improved reaction time, turn time and overall sprint among swimmers⁶.
Travelling across time zones leads to a de-synchronization of circadian rhythms where the human body tries to adapt to the time changes. The International Federation of Sports Medicine recommends to gradually shift the sleep schedule (30 to 60 minutes per day) toward that of the destination for a few days prior to departure by using appropriately timed bright light and darkness, melatonin, or exercise to shift circadian rhythms¹⁰.
Any elite performing athlete evaluates all aspects that impact output carefully. Timed personalized light that stabilizes the circadian rhythms may improve performance¹. Furthermore, the direct alerting effect of light could be used to improve alertness and motivation. Light showers that provide high intensity cold white light may also be used to activate and boost energy.
1. Facer-Childs E, Brandstaetter R. The impact of circadian phenotype and time since awakening on diurnal performance in athletes. Curr Biol. 2015;25(4):518-522. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.12.036
6. Halson SL, Juliff LE. Sleep, sport, and the brain 2. 234:13-31.
8. Thun E, Bjorvatn B, Flo E, Harris A, Pallesen S. Sleep, circadian rhythms, and athletic performance. Sleep Med Rev. 2015. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2014.11.003
9. Venter RE. Role of sleep in performance and recovery of athletes: A review article. South African J Res Sport Phys Educ Recreat. 2012;34(1):167-184.
10. FIMS Position Statement: Air Travel and Performance in Sports. March 2004.