Sleep & Athletic Performance: Ryan Donato Going From Harvard to the NHL


The honor of being selected to represent one’s country in the Olympics is the ultimate goal for many athletes. The dedication to training requires a huge time investment and endless sacrifices in the years leading up to the competition. It is therefore no surprise that athletes seek any edge over their competition. Harvard University senior, Ryan Donato, was selected for the 2018 USA Men’s Hockey Team and sought just such an advantage. With the help of O2X specialist, Dr. Rachel Markwald, he found it: Sleep.

Obtaining high-quality sleep of sufficient duration is critical to athletic performance. For elite athletes, sleep can be the edge that pushes them to victory in a close competition. There are several scientifically-founded reasons why athletes, athletic trainers, and coaches are making sleep a priority, on par with nutrition, conditioning and hydration. This is in part because insufficient sleep affects our cognitive abilities. For example, athletes receiving less than ideal sleep have been found to have slower reaction times and reduced accuracy when compared with those getting the recommended amount. This can impact the on-the-fly decision-making that is a critical component to the overall success of team sports such as hockey where game play requires players to make fast and accurate decisions.

Sleep also impacts physical health which in turn impacts readiness and performance. High-quality sleep ensures the release of plenty of growth hormone which mainly occurs during our deepest stage of sleep and which is critical to tissue repair, regeneration and recovery. Further, not getting enough sleep can make our immune system less efficient. In short, insufficient sleep can translate to longer recovery times and missed days due to injury or illness.

Most every athlete can attest to experiencing some amount of sleep loss from excitement or travel, right? Well for Ryan, compound that 100x for a first olympics! Having any big competition the next day can make it difficult to rest. And while the negative effects of insufficient sleep are not as pronounced following just one night of sleep loss, they become more so as the sleepless nights add up – the olympics last a few weeks. Additionally, the impact of jet lag can misalign circadian rhythms, disrupt sleep, and require athletes to perform at clock times that do not match their own body’s rhythm for peak performance. Further, sleeping in a hotel or dorm-like environment can lead to sleep disruptions due to noise interruptions, uncomfortable mattresses, etc. It is for these reasons that sleep experts are being called on to help.

For Olympic competition, most athletes will travel to the host city, sometimes crossing several time zones. As a general rule, it takes about 1-2 time days per timezone (after arrival) to fully adjust to a new location, and this depends on the direction of the travel. Travel to South Korea required travel across 14 times zones since the country corresponds to USA Eastern Time (ET) + 14 hours. This 14-hour time difference means that Ryan could potentially have faced a 14 day adjustment period before returning to maximum performance potential. Not ideal with his first practice the day after arriving in Pyeongchang.

Thankfully, by working with the most cutting-edge scientific techniques sleep scientists are able to expedite this process with the strategic use of tailored sleep schedules and lighting exposure programs. Dr. Markwald worked closely with Ryan to come up with a segmented program that included a pre-travel, travel, post-travel and competition plan. Starting three days prior to his flight Ryan began to shift his internal circadian clock towards the South Korean time zone by following the program Dr. Markwald designed. While traveling, Ryan took specific steps to further push his internal clock towards the destination time zone. After landing, a new set of procedures ensured Ryan quickly finished adapting. By following each segment, Ryan rapidly adjusted his circadian clock and thus was able to sleep well and train/perform at a clock time that better matched his internal rhythms.

The plan gave Ryan an edge over others who had not prepared in this way. Without the negative effects of jet lag to disrupt his sleep and performance, Ryan extracted maximal value from his pre-competition training. This also helped to keep Ryan injury and illness free in the days leading up to Olympic competition and go on to score five out of six goals for Team USA. This tied Ryan with two other players for the most goals scored in the 2018 games!