Feature News

The ideal practice time for student-athletes: Student research looks for answers

Jun 27, 2018

As a member of the men’s cross country and track and field teams, Aaron Spivey ’18 was curious about whether the sleep sacrificed by student-athletes affected their mental and physical abilities. He wanted to know if student-athletes performed cognitive and physical tests differently on days when they participated in early morning or afternoon practices.

With a double major in the new neuroscience program along with exercise science, Spivey proposed a research project titled “Sleep and Athletes: The Importance of Practice Schedules for Student-Athletes.”

He found a willing faculty mentor in Alexis Chambers, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, whose scholarship focuses on sleep. “Sleep among athletes is an understudied area in the field,” she said.

Spivey and his fellow researchers recruited participants from the women’s cross country team and designed the tasks and measurements for the study.  

They were able to record results from six student-athletes, who agreed to perform identical tasks in the early morning (5 a.m.) and late afternoon (2:30 p.m.). They asked the student-athletes to take a psychomotor vigilance test that measures reaction times. Participants were also tested with a Digit Symbol Substitution Task, which requires the use of memory to fill in a grid.

Using the new exercise science lab in the Dr. Myron Wentz Science Center, participants’ physical conditions were assessed using the cutting edge InBody 770 Body Composition Analyzer. It measured their hydration levels and whole body phase angle (a suggested measure of cell membrane integrity, which could detect inflammation) as physical responses to their sleep and practice schedules.

[Pictured below: Jen Hufnagle tests the InBody 770 while Aaron Spivey looks on.]

Jen Hufnagle being tested with the InBody 770.

The athletes in the study reported getting six hours of sleep before the morning practice and eight hours on the day of the afternoon practice. All other comparisons were not significant except for the hours in bed prior to the morning and afternoon practice day. However, Spivey learned that there is still much to learn.

“Our research study may not have had any significant implications with regard to the participants’ physical and cognitive measures, but with more participants studied over a longer duration of time, we may have been able to draw more definitive associations between sleep and physical and cognitive performance.

“After taking Dr. Chambers’ Psychology Seminar on sleep and finishing this research study, I have come to realize that there is still a lot we do not know about sleep,” says Spivey, who also gained personal experience from a brother diagnosed with sleep apnea.  “We know that sleep is important. However, we have yet to understand all of the underlying processes behind it.”

Spivey, who plans to pursue a further education and a career as an athletic trainer, hopes that the other student researchers continue with this sleep research.  In addition to Spivey, the research team included Isabella Kwiecinski ‘18, Jessica Ponce ’19, Emily Conradi ’19, Marc Malandrino ’19 and Jen Hufnagle ’19. They presented their results in a poster session at the Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research in May.

[Pictured below: From left to right--Jessica Ponce, Aaron Spivey, Emily Conradi, Jen Hufnagle and Marc Malandrino.]

The researchers present their project at the Rall Symposium.