If you had a choice, what time slot should you select for your next big audition?
9am? Noon? 3pm?
Or 6pm, even 9pm?
Put another way, at what time of day are you most likely to perform your very best?
Larks and owls (and otters)
Researchers at the University of Birmingham recruited 121 competitive athletes to complete a comprehensive inventory of their daily activities, ranging from sleep/wake patterns to food intake, training schedules, and more.
The results were used to categorize the athletes as morning “larks,” intermediate folks, or evening “owls.” (Why didn’t the athletes in the middle get a bird nickname? I don’t know, so I’m just going to call them “otters.” Because otters are awesome . And do cute human-y things, like hold hands ).
From that pool of athletes, the researchers selected 20, who were all field hockey players at approximately the same age and fitness level (1/4th were larks, 1/2 were otters, and 1/4th were owls).
The 20 participants then completed the standard “bleep” fitness test at six different times of day – 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, and 10pm – to see at what time of day they would perform their best.
Overall, performance was worst at 7am, and best at 4pm and 7pm. Performance at 10am, 1pm, and 10pm was somewhere in the middle.
So at first glance, it would seem that the best time for us to schedule an audition or performance is somewhere in the 4pm-7pm range.
However, the story gets a little more nuanced and interesting when you look at the larks, otters, and owls separately.
When separated by their circadian phenotype (or internal “body clock”), the researchers found that athletes’ performances varied quite a bit during the course of a day.
- Early larks performed their best on the bleep test around mid-day.
- Intermediate otters performed their best around mid-afternoon.
- Evening owls performed their best in the evening.
Furthermore, the consistency of each group’s performances varied quite a lot too. Larks’ and otters’ best and worst performances varied by about 7-10% on average. Meanwhile, the owls’ performances varied pretty wildly, with an average difference of 26% between their best and worst performances.
Sure, 7% may not seem like much, but as the authors note, a 1% gain/loss in performance is easily the difference between medaling and not medaling in the Olympics, and in some events, can even be the difference between 4th place and 1st place.
What time do you wake up?
The researchers also looked at athletes’ performances relative to their “entrained” wake-up time, or the time athletes reported waking up naturally without an alarm clock.
Because even if an early riser and late riser are both up and about during most of the same parts of a day, they do keep very different hours and have different biological days.
For instance, studies have found that larks have higher levels of cortisol in the morning (a hormone, too much of which isn’t good, but is essential for muscle function), and a particular pattern of cortisol levels during the day, relative to owls who have lower cortisol in the morning and also a distinctly different pattern of cortisol levels during the day.
So consider the 10am bleep test. The early larks’ average natural wake-up time was ~7am, giving them 3 hours to clear their heads and get revved up a bit. The otters’ entrained wake-up time was ~8am, so their body clocks would have been up for 2 hours before the test. The owls’ natural wake-up time, on the other hand, was 9:45am – only 15 minutes before their 10am bleep test! So it’s not surprising that the owls would perform more poorly in the morning/early afternoon bleep tests – their body clocks were still just getting out of bed, in a manner of speaking.
Using the athletes’ natural wake-up time (or the biological start of their day), and the time at which they had their best performances, the researchers then calculated the athletes’ average time to peak performance. For the larks, the average time from entrained wake-up to peak performance was 5.5 hours. For the otters, it was 6 hours. For the owls, on the other hand, it took 11 hours from their biological start of the day to get to peak performance levels. So on average, it took the night owls much longer to get to an optimal level of performance – great if you have a performance in the evening, but not so terrific if you have to perform during the daytime.
A few things to consider, before you turn your sleep schedule upside down. For one, this study used cardiovascular fitness as a measure of performance. Though the results are pretty interesting, and probably jibe with your own experience of jet-lagged performances or early morning vs. afternoon/evening auditions, the results may or may not translate directly to musicians in the same way. Plus, there are probably going to be differences between, say, a cellist and a trumpet player, which have very different physical demands.
Also, the study doesn’t necessarily prove that simply changing our entrained wakeup time will improve performance. There might be more to it than that.
But at the end of the day, it does seem like it’s better to be a lark or an otter than an owl when it comes to daytime performances. So with audition season right around the corner (and the inevitable morning auditions times that someone is going to get stuck with), it wouldn’t hurt to get into the habit of going to bed a bit earlier. After all, you can always use the latest Facebook meme as an excuse to get out of bed in the morning, rather than getting sucked into the internet black hole at night when our willpower is waning and microwave pasta cookers and kitchen knives that can cut through beer cans, nails, and logs seem like the best thing ever.