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Football Gophers drill down on sleep, and win

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Gophers players celebrate defeating the Maryland Terrapins.
The Minnesota Gophers celebrate defeating the Maryland Terrapins as they run off the field after the game at TCF Bank Stadium on Oct. 26, 2019, in Minneapolis. The Gophers defeated the Terrapins 52-10.
Hannah Foslien | Getty Images file

The Gophers football team is enjoying the best start to a season in decades, and one reason why could be better sleep. 

University of Minnesota players are college students, too — juggling classes, exams and homework as well as practices and travel to road games.

“We have practice in the mornings, so then we have to go to class in the afternoon. If you didn't get a good night's sleep, it's really hard to really focus as much as you need to, or even stay in class,” said Minnesota punter Jacob Herbers.

A fifth-year senior, Herbers eventually wants to work in the medical field. He watched his teammates and coaches focus on nutrition and mental health awareness, but not on sleep, which can affect both of those. Before this season, Herbers approached Dr. Michael Howell, the medical director of the M Health Fairview Sleep Center.

“Anything that gives you a 5 to 8 percent edge in high-performance athletics goes a very, very long way — and that's what we can expect with people sleeping better,” Howell said.

Optimum sleep comprises both sleeping enough hours and aligning those hours with the body’s natural sleep cycle. Howell said the first step toward prioritizing sleep is motivation. With the support of coach P.J. Fleck, Howell shared his insights with the team, suggesting that sleep would aid reaction time and reduce mistakes.

Howell also told them how good sleep leads to fewer injuries and faster recovery. And during sleep, your brain rewires to incorporate what you learned that day.

Fleck said the team has gone all-in on sleep this year, adapting schedules week by week based on game time.

“[For] the times we've had bye weeks, we've practiced at the times we're actually going to be able to play. We've adapted the times our players wake up based on the times they're going to play,” the Gopher football coach said. ”We've gotten wake-up lights that we have around the building to really simulate sunlight.”

The student-athletes were told to put away phones an hour before bed and use visualization or meditation to prepare themselves for sleep.

Ultimately, though, Gophers punter Herbers said being in peak condition really comes down to players making the right choices throughout the season.

“The coaches aren't there to watch you sleep, right? You're only at the athletic complex for so many hours in a day, and so it really falls onto the discipline of the players and how disciplined your football team is,” he said.

Herbers said the daily schedule now includes an optimum nap time, popular among players.

As the Gophers prepare for this weekend's game, Howell said the team's sleep experiment “really provides a unique motivation and knowledge transfer on something that everybody can strive for: to sleep a little bit better.”

On Saturday, the Gophers host fifth-ranked Penn State in what Fleck has called the “biggest game” of the year. Fleck says the team has been adjusting their sleep schedules during the week to be prepared for the 11 a.m. start time.