By Coach Hoy, MS, CSCS, SCCC, PES
Parents, athletes, and coaches have known for years that getting plenty of sleep is one of the most important factors in optimal recovery in sports. One of the least expensive fitness and performance factors that can have a huge impact on results is giving yourself high quality sleep. Getting better sleep is a requirement for you to perform better in not only sports and fitness, but also your work and life activities.
However, it still seems that most people are deprived of quality sleep, and as a result, often not achieving full recovery from activities, work, games, practices and/or workouts. I want to provide you with proven habits and helpful tips for better sleep.
When discussing sleep, it is particularly important to understand that the greatest value is in getting deep sleep. Scientists say that there are 5 stages of sleep, beginning with light sleep, then moving on to deep sleep and finally REM sleep. Deep sleep occurs in stages 3 and 4. You can only get to stages 3 and 4 by first experiencing stages 1 and 2. All too often, our sleep is disrupted throughout the night, limiting our amount of deep sleep. Each time we are disrupted, we begin again at stage 1. It takes about 90 minutes for a complete cycle of stages 1 through 5. This is optimal: deep, uninterrupted sleep. In other words, get better sleep.
So, why is deep sleep so important?
This is where the body goes through natural restorative processes such as the release of growth hormone, which plays a major role in tissue repair (such as muscle). Not getting restful sleep and allowing the body to get to stages 3 and 4 denies the body of the best natural recovery methods available.
11 Useful Tips to Better Sleep
- Make your room as dark as possible. Remove or eliminate any light sources such as computer monitors, TV’s, night lights, etc. If you cannot get the room really dark, you can try using a sleeping mask. Our sleep cycles have a sensitivity to light. When our eyes and brain senses light, it sends a signal to “wake-up”, making it more difficult to get the deep sleep needed for optimal recovery.
- Make sure the room is at a comfortable temperature. Set the room temp to the way you feel most comfortable when you sleep. Research has shown that you should keep your room near 65 degrees, plus or minus a few degrees. For myself, I like it as cool/cold as possible, while my wife is the exact opposite. So, we typically end up at 66 degrees and she can add more blankets if needed.
- Don’t eat high carbohydrate meals or snacks (or high glycemic foods—foods that digest quickly or spike your insulin levels rapidly such as white breads and starchy carbs) within 2 hours of going to bed. An acceptable snack would be something like a handful of almonds and an 6-8 oz glass of milk. The almonds have a slow release fat which will be metabolized slowly during the night, helping to fight any hunger pangs that might normally creep up during your sleep. Don’t chug the milk or drink a lot of beverage prior to going to bed, or you will have to empty the bladder at some point in the night, which will disrupt your sleep.
- Remove any potential distractions or disruptions from your room (such as phone ringers, dogs barking, etc.). Remember, it is key to have uninterrupted sleep. Staying off the smartphone has been one of the biggest challenges for teenagers and college athletes. If you’re like me, and you use your phone alarm to awake in the morning, you can still have your phone on but turn it upside down and out of arms reach.
- Add white noise from items such as fans, humidifiers, etc, or wear earplugs. It is important to keep it as quiet as possible. I know many people who like to fall asleep to the sound of the TV. Quite often, they are disrupted several times throughout the night by loud infomercials, flashy lights or other distractions from the TV. Replace the TV with a fan if you need noise.
- Relax the mind and body before going to bed. It is almost impossible to fall asleep within 30 minutes after an intense workout. Relax the body, and relax the mind. Read a book, or meditate (really nice if you have a massage chair!) and prepare the mind and body for sleep. Concentrated ‘belly breathing’ has been shown to help with relaxation and putting you into a parasympathetic state, which will enable you to fall asleep more quickly.
- Avoid too much caffeine consumption. If you are caffeine sensitive, you may want to also avoid caffeine consumption after 2pm. Consuming large amounts of caffeine will have an effect on your sleep. If you are having trouble staying awake during the day, try some physical activity. Do a few push-ups, sit-ups, stretch, jog around the room, jumping jacks, berpies, etc.—I think you understand.
- Go to bed and wake-up at the same time every day. Consistency here is the key. The human body/mind likes consistency. Getting use to sleeping and waking at the same time daily helps create a rhythm and helps you achieve deep sleep on a more regular basis.
- Get 7.5-9 hours of sleep daily. I know this is very tough for many of us, but studies still show that this is optimal. 9 hours is more preferred for teenagers or college athletes, while 7.5 hours is preferred for adults. If you cannot get 7.5-9 hours of sleep, refer to Tip #10.
- Schedule your sleep in 90 minute intervals to help promote getting deep sleep. If you know you can only get between 4 and 5 hours of sleep on a given night, set your alarm for 4.5 hours. Waking up at the end of a sleep cycle (90min) will help you feel refreshed. Waking up in the middle or at the beginning will make you feel more sleep deprived and tired throughout the day. As the day goes on, we will naturally crave the remaining sleep to fulfill a full sleep cycle if we wake up in the middle of the cycle. Ever wonder why some people (teenagers) can sleep 10 hours and still be tired?—it’s because 9 hours would be a full cycle, and 10.5 hours would be another. Waking up in 10 hours is a partial cycle so you will feel a little tired and sluggish. This is not exact, so your times might be just little different—but it is pretty close.
- Avoid staring at screens (TV, computer, phone) close to bed time. These emit blue light, which makes it more difficult for natural signals to occur which trigger sleep and preparation for sleep. I recommend getting a pair of glasses designed as “blue blockers” to block the blue light. This will not only help you with your sleep, but also help save your eyesight in the long run.
A lot has been written over the years regarding sleep studies for fitness and sports recovery. Taking advantage of your sleep as a recovery tool is a great way to help optimize your athletic performance, fitness levels, and work performance. Give yourself the gift of better sleep.
If you are currently an in-season athlete, using recovery strategies and techniques, such as maximizing deep sleep and proper nutrition, you are increasing your chances of performing at your best consistently throughout the duration of the season AND reducing your risk of getting injured.
Much can be said, and much has been written and publicized about all the new sports technology (sport science) devices available today, but they just become fancy gadgets without first taking responsibility and control of optimizing your sleep habits and nutrition habits. Making improvements in getting better sleep and having better nutrition are great ways to start making noticeable improvements immediately.
I have been successfully helping thousands of people optimize their fitness, sports performance, and work performance as a professional for over 20 years now. If you have specific questions, please ask in the comment section on this page. If you find something you like, please share. And, in the meantime, get yourself some better sleep.