Blue Light & Performance Outcomes

There are safe ways to use technology and still achieve quality sleep; and student-athletes need to understand the broader influences on recovery.

· 4 min read
Blue Light & Performance Outcomes
Photo by Niklas Hamann / Unsplash

Most student-athletes understand the principles of optimizing performance and recovery. However, knowing the right strategies often doesn’t make implementing them any simpler. We all might feel a little bit of guilt when we indulge in habits that could hinder progress, like staying up late to watch TV or scrolling through social media. Yes, I'm acknowledging myself here.

Universally accepted wisdom suggests that behaviors like these, especially those involving screens, can disrupt the body’s natural recovery processes. The blue light emitted from devices is said to trick our brains into thinking it’s still daytime, thus interfering with our circadian rhythms and making it harder to rest. I'm even guilty of writing about this very thing on this blog.

But now, I'm starting to wonder if screen time truly the culprit behind your performance dips. Dr. Mike Gradisar, head of sleep science at Sleep Cycle, argues, not necessarily.

Screen Time & Recovery

Gradisar and his fellow researchers examined whether technology use directly causes performance and recovery problems or if the opposite is true. Their findings, published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, offer a thorough look at how technology affects people. We all may be keen to review our seminal texts covering the differences between causation and correlation.

One focus was the impact of blue light on sleep quality and, by extension, athletic performance. Contrary to the belief that screen time significantly delays sleep, a study conducted in Switzerland found only a minimal delay.

After five nights, those reading e-books took just 9.9 minutes longer to fall asleep compared to those reading printed books in dim light.

The research indicated that the effect of screens on sleep was minimal and often exaggerated. Shocker.

Another aspect Gradisar investigated was the type of content consumed before bed. Watching an intense movie or playing a high-stakes video game like first-person shooters has been linked to poorer sleep quality. Yet, Gradisar’s research found little to no effect on sleep quality as long as people maintained a consistent bedtime.

a computer screen with a video game on it
Photo by Fábio Magalhães / Unsplash

Experiments with people playing Call of Duty before bed versus watching TV showed minimal impact on sleep. This is something often touted on social media regarding avoiding highly stimulating movies, video games, and other media types.

Finally, they examined the intensity of light emitted from screens. The brightest screens didn’t exceed 80 lux, far below the 500-lux level known to alter sleep timing.

Beyond Technology

Technology is often blamed for modern performance and recovery issues. However, Gradisar, a clinical psychologist specializing in sleep, attributes most problems to irregular habits and inconsistent routines.

If a person (or in our case a student-athlete) has trouble sleeping, they’re likely to go to bed later. They might lie awake anxious about tomorrow’s class, training or reflecting on their past sport-performance. To cope, they might reach for their phones to distract themselves.

A significant issue for college student-athletes is their naturally delayed biological rhythms, which they might not fully understand. Instead of just avoiding screens before bed, Gradisar suggests bright light therapy in the morning to help reset the circadian rhythm.

Stories from the Field

At the University of Colorado, I’ve witnessed firsthand how blue light and screen habits can impact our student-athletes. One of our top women’s volleyball players, for instance, was struggling with morning practices. She often complained of feeling sluggish and not fully recovered, despite adhering to a rigorous training regimen. Upon closer examination, we discovered she was spending hours on her phone before bed, scrolling through social media and watching videos. By adjusting her screen time and incorporating morning light therapy, we saw a marked improvement in her energy levels and on-court performance.

Similarly, a standout women’s basketball player found her late-night gaming sessions were cutting into her sleep. She was passionate about video games and often played them to unwind after a long day. However, this was affecting her sleep quality and, subsequently, her performance in early morning strength and conditioning sessions. We worked together to create a structured evening routine that limited her screen exposure before bed, focusing instead on relaxation techniques and consistent sleep schedules. This change not only improved her sleep but also enhanced her lifting performance, allowing her to push harder and recover faster.

Other Influences

Another critical factor is alcohol consumption. Endless amounts of research indicates that alcohol is detrimental to sleep quality as it disrupts the natural sleep cycles, leading to poor recovery.

That nightcap might help you fall asleep faster, but it won’t support the restorative sleep cycles necessary for peak performance.

liquor pouring on clear shot glass
Photo by Adam Jaime / Unsplash

Lastly, maintaining a consistent bedtime is crucial. Some student-athletes are disciplined about their routines, while others might push limits.

Gradisar points out that individual habits play a significant role. Some people get absorbed in their activities and lose track of time, which affects their sleep schedule much more than blue light.

Although the new research on technology and sleep offers some relief for student-athletes who unwind with their phones or TV, it’s not an excuse to ignore potential impacts.

Gradisar emphasizes that while there are safe ways to use technology and still achieve quality sleep, people need to understand the broader influences on recovery.

By understanding these nuanced influences on recovery, student-athletes can make informed choices to enhance their performance both on and off the field.