The Power of Sleep: J.J. Watt knows how to turn it on and turn it off
Athletes have never been more aware of what their bodies need in order to reach peak performance. Fuel Illustrated is a collaboration between Gatorade and the SI Overtime branded content studio exploring how the best athletes in the world manage their daily clock—training, diet, competition and recovery—as they strive for excellence in their chosen sports.
In a corner of the Texans’ equipment room at NRG Stadium in Houston sits an unusual piece of football equipment: a queen-size bed. Adorned with a white comforter and fluffy pillows, the inviting crib was brought in during the summer of 2015 by defensive end J.J. Watt. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who meticulously schedules his time around training and eating seven meals a day, brought the bed because of the sleep-disrupting grind of training camp, which include late-night meetings and early-morning workouts. “If I’m shooting for an ideal night of sleep, that’s somewhere between eight and 11 hours,” he says. “But I do nap. I’m a professional athlete—my body is my job. And for my job, rest is so important.”
“I can tell right away when he gets out of his [sleep] routine,” says Brad Arnett, the trainer who has been working with Watt since he was in high school. “It takes him longer to warm up.”
The bed is a replica of Watt’s bed at home, and his obsession with slumber is not unusual in today’s NFL. Getting enough sleep impacts not only a player’s ability to recover from physical exertion, but also his reaction time and capacity to learn new skills and assignments. It’s little wonder that the science of sleep has become a frontier in the quest to gain a competitive advantage.
“Guys in pro sports have little room to improve because they’re already at the top of their game,” says Dr. James Maas, the retired Cornell psychology professor who coined the term “power nap,” and who advises NFL and NHL teams on sleep strategies. “But most of them don’t understand the importance of sleep, and don’t know how to obtain great sleep.”
Maas consults for both the Dolphins and the Jets. About a week before those teams met at Wembley Stadium in London last October, Maas gave the Jets a 21-minute presentation with a detailed sleeping schedule to help the players adjust to the five-hour time difference. “We had them all set 48 hours before arrival in the U.K.,” says Maas. “The Dolphins did their own thing.” The result? The Jets gained 425 yards in a 27–14 win. Coverage in The New York Daily News suggested that the Dolphins “sleepwalked” through the first three quarters.
Maas says that when sleep is cut short or interrupted, testosterone levels don’t fully replenish and muscles don’t have enough time to build and recover. The average adult needs 7½ to nine hours of sleep a night. As far as naps, Maas says, “They’re good, but still not as good for your brain or your memory as regular sleep.”
Watt agrees—during the season a 7:30 p.m. evening turn-in is ideal for him—but afternoon naps have been a nice training supplement. And teammates have followed. When J.J. is curled up for some shuteye, no one goes near. (Who wants to disturb a 6'6", 295-pound monster of a man in his lair?) But when the bed is free, other Texans will lie down for a snooze, and Watt is happy to see it. As he once said to a pool of reporters: “If you guys can get a bed in your workplace, go for it.”