Bodyclock misalignment influences the outcome of football games

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By Dr. Simon Kyle

It is well known that biological rhythms influence many aspects of our daily functioning and performance. Muscle strength for example, is known to peak, on average, at approximately 5-6pm, and trough at about 3am. While controlled laboratory studies confirm this diurnal variation, evidence for real-world impact on performance is sparse. In the December edition of the journal SLEEP, a team of researchers from Harvard, Stanford and UCSD investigate whether circadian alignment influences the outcome of American football games.

Researchers hypothesized that US west coast football teams would have an advantage when playing against east coast football teams during evening games. West coast-east coast time difference of 3 hours, means that the west coast teams, regardless of whether playing at home or away, would always be playing closer to their natural endogenous peak (~5pm) in athletic performance during evening games. The research team analyzed 40 years worth of data comparing west coast with east coast teams, during both night and daytime games, and controlling for variables that may influence game outcome (e.g. quality of team). The group found that, consistently over 4 decades of games, west coast teams were more likely to beat east coast rivals during evening games. This advantage was not observed for daytime games.

While the authors weren’t able to assess sleep and circadian factors directly, the robust findings suggest that “Awareness of this significant and natural advantage may encourage application to athletic performance enhancement strategies”.

They go on to suggest: “…athletes may attempt to adjust their internal clock to its peak performance time, regardless of what clock time the athletic event is occurring. Coaches may design travel schedules to either enhance or avoid obvious issues when crossing several or more time zones. In this particular case, EC [east coast] teams may wish to consider phase delaying their body clocks by 3 hours well before playing games with start times 8-9 pm EST regardless of their opponent or the game location.”

Smith, R.S., Efron, B., Mah, C.D., Malhotra, A. (2013). The impact of circadian misalignment on athletic performance in professional football players. SLEEP, 36(12), 1999-2001.

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