Circadian rhythms are key to peak performance

10 Nov 2020

From altitude training to exacting diets, every little detail of professional athletes’ lives is optimised for success.

But a key factor to unlocking peak performance could be far simpler.

A new study has found that competing at the right the time of day has a significant effect on performance.

New study finds circadian rhythms affect Olympic swim performance

The study at the University of Groningen found that Olympic swimmers race about 0.39 seconds faster in the evening than in the morning.

That may sound like a small gain. But far smaller margins make the difference between winning or losing a medal.

Published in Nature, Professor R. Lok claims that there are “clear effects of time-of-day on performance in Olympic athletes”. “Physical performance is not determined by training only, but also by the circadian system”.

Best results at 5 p.m.

The study found that most athletes peaked in the late afternoon at 17:12pm.

However, it’s important to note that this is an average. Lok stressed that Larks and Night Owls will have different peak performance times.

The findings are consistent with what scientists already know about our biological clocks. Researchers have long known that our circadian rhythms control body temperature, heart rate, reaction time and concentration.

Shifting sleep patterns for peak performance

So what does this mean for professional sport?

In a world of “marginal gains” – where every little detail is measured and controlled – the study could have big ramifications.

Athletes may be able to use this insight to shift their sleep pattern and improve their performance. If a competition is at midday, for example, shifting sleeping patterns earlier may allow them to compete closer to their peak.

Understand your rhythm

Of course, most of us don’t need to worry about optimising our athletic performance to this degree.

But the study does demonstrate the powerful effect that circadian rhythms have on our physiology. It’s an important reminder to take your circadian rhythms seriously.

If you want to perform your best at work – or to just improve your sleep and energy levels – then there are real benefits to learning about your personal circadian rhythm.