Skip to Content

Adequate Sleep - A "Major League" Challenge for Baseball Players


A lack of quality sleep has a negative impact on performance.

After an Opening Day delay, the 2022 Major League Baseball Season is now in full swing, to the delight of many. I recently came across the jam-packed travel schedule for most MLB teams. Doing so has caused this sports neurologist to consider again the significant implications of an inconsistent sleep schedule on neurological and physical performance, and how those implications can be generalized to anyone with rigorous sports, work, or life schedules.

Using the 2021 MLB season as a jumping-off point to begin this commentary, the Seattle Mariners traveled 48,401 miles last season. If you need something to compare that number to, consider this – the Earth's circumference is about 25,000 miles. So, the Mariners made two trips around the globe to play baseball during their 6-ish month season last year. Between Spring Training and post-season playoffs, that baseball season duration can extend even longer for plenty of teams – to 200 contests in a single season. Only about half of those games are played at a team's home field.

With half a season on the road that requires thousands of miles of bus and air travel, and umpteen hotel room stays, it's a wonder these athletes can perform at the level they do. But doing so isn't without cost. All that travel messes with the body's circadian rhythm – the internal regulator of our sleep-wake cycle. The adequacy of the sleep a professional baseball player gets is put at risk by rigorous travels, time-zone jet lag, the impact of a variety of different rooms and beds being slept in, the stress of performance, and many other factors.

SLEEP, the official journal of the Sleep Research Society, has published studies aiming to shed light on links between fatigue and sleep disturbances on an MLB player's performance and career longevity. One study found that generalized fatigue towards the end of the baseball season correlated to impairment of a player's strike-zone judgment. The study authors found that strike-zone judgment was significantly worse in September than in April for 24 out of 30 MLB teams. The second study pointed to a professional baseball player's sleepiness as a predictor of how long his MLB career might last. In essence, the sleepier the player, the shorter his career in the sport. That study further validated what many studies before and after it have – sleepiness impairs performance.

I've written extensively on ways a person can enhance their sleep hygiene to improve performance and overall brain health. But so many of those recommendations presume the person employing these strategies will be sleeping in the same bed and attempting to go to bed at the same time each night. Sleep health is much more challenging to attain for a person that is time-zone and bed-hopping for most months out of the year. Yet, ensuring these elite athletes get the rest they deserve is a sports health imperative. It should be viewed through the same lens as their nutrition and other health initiatives are - as vitally important.

I am singling out baseball players in this article because it is baseball season. But MLB players are certainly not alone in facing rigorous travel schedule demands. To compare, NBA teams will spend more time on an airplane than any other professional league in the U.S. They don't play as many games as baseball players, but they also don't have the benefit of playing regular-season series games in one place like MLB athletes do. An NBA player's season also features at least 50 percent of their games on the road. NFL teams tend to travel as far as NBA teams, but they only play once each week.

Remember the above study about sleep's effects on an MLB player's strike-zone judgment later in the baseball season? There's something I think everyone, not just professional athletes, can take away from that analysis. So much athletic training attention gets focused on repetition, repetition, repetition. But that study suggests that this performance aspect worsened throughout the season, even though the player had far more plate appearances later in the season than he did initially. He had more reps. Why wasn't his accuracy improving? The probable answer: he lacked adequate sleep.

So, whether you're an athlete at any level or a person who simply wants to get the most out of this one life you've got, let this article be a lesson to you. Prioritize your sleep as devotedly as you would any other aspect of your training or living. When you do, you will realize some significant health benefits and improvements in your performance.