Champions Corner

How some Olympians are embracing jet lag and using sleep deprivation to their advantage

Some people deprive themselves of sleep to hallucinate or to treat their depression, often with decent results. Olympic ski jumpers have now identified a third way lack of sleep can be helpful: It can maximize airtime.

Believing that a foggy mind could make them less likely to hold back when they shoot off a giant ramp to soar hundreds of yards through the air, some of the skiers arrived in Pyeongchang just days before their events so that they could compete while still jet lagged. "It's a surprisingly common strategy even among gold-medal contenders," The Wall Street Journal reports.

When you think about it, it kind of makes sense.

Losing sleep quiets the areas in your brain that inhibit you. It makes you more inclined to take risks. For ski jumpers, that can be ideal.

"Mentally, it feels like suicide," the retired ski jumper Jeff Hastings told the Journal. "The closer you come to committing suicide without committing suicide, the better you're going to be."

Japan's Yuka Seto competes in the women's normal hill individual ski jumping event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Jonathan Nackstrand | Getty Images
Japan's Yuka Seto competes in the women's normal hill individual ski jumping event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

But losing sleep comes at a cost. When you're asleep, your lymphatic system removes toxins from your blood throughout your body, while cerebral fluid removes them from your brain. Without that rejuvenation process, it becomes harder to focus and remember.

According to one study, going extensive periods of time without sleep is like being under the influence of alcohol, which can explain the National Sleep Foundation's estimate that 100,000 car crashes a year are caused by fatigued drivers.

That's why most Olympians arrived in Pyeongchang weeks before the games began, in order to acclimate to the time change and compete with clear heads.

And other extreme athletes who have to overcome natural inhibitions still hold accept the conventional wisdom that getting enough sleep is key. Ski racers, for instance, reach speeds of 95 miles per hour as they carve down the mountain, and Mikaela Shiffrin, who some expect to take home a few Alpine gold medals this Olympics, told the New Yorker that she gets nine hours of sleep a night and naps at least one hour a day.

Snowboarders appear to be loading up on shut-eye as well. The morning of Red Gerard's gold-medal-winning run, the 17-year-old reportedly overslept.

The normal ski hill jump event is now done. Maren Lundby of Norway took home the gold for women's and Germany's Andreas Wellinger won it in the men's division. Kevin Bickner, the top-placing American, finished 18th.

He endorses the jet lag strategy. As he told the Journal, "The worst thing you can do before flying into the abyss is think too much."

He'll be competing in the large hill jump later this week. Having already landed in Pyeongchang and competed in an event, he'll have to find a way besides jet lag to get into the right frame of mind.

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