The Most Important Recovery Tool Is Sleep
Do you find yourself developing an ever deeper relationship with the foam roller? Spending more time in Normatec compression pants than any other pant or marathon sessions googling recovery techniques? If you’re like me, you’ve tried them all, to the detriment of the one proven recovery enhancer: sleep.
Christie Aschwanden, author of Good to Go, What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery says, “Sleep is the most potent recovery tool known to science. Nothing else comes close. If you’re not getting enough sleep, there’s no other recovery method you can use that will make up the difference.”
I’ve heard “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” from a number of ski-mountaineering partners the day before a big summit push with a 10 or 11 PM start time. Biohackers, CEOs, athletes and celebrities flaunt their sleep-deprived productivity. Working in front of a computer all hours of the night, training, racing in sleep-deprived states and sleeping just a handful of hours a night. They proudly wake up with a strong cup of coffee to edge off the fatigue and start their next ultra-productive running a Fortune 500 company on just a 20-minute nap.
A lot of times, these stories are exaggerated or simply untrue. They can often leave hard-working sleepers feeling stigmatized and lazy for their dependence on what is, (say it with me) a biological imperative. Though there’s some evidence that a small percentage of the population can function normally on less than seven to eight hours of sleep, that sliver is very, very small and has never been studied in athletes. It’s about time we de-stigmatize loving sleep and recognize its importance to athletic, and basic human functions.
As coaches, we continually ask our athletes about their sleep, because, like Aschwanden, we pretty much can’t over-hype sleep. It’s the best biological safeguard against disease, it helps boost our immune function, cell regeneration and assimilation of new experiences into long-term memory. It’s the ONE THING you can do that would make it easier to run a marathon and learn French (though maybe not at the same time). It’s vital for learning, cognition and physical recovery. Sleep is your swiss army knife of biology, one thing that does it all.
Sleep is your most critical aspect of wellness and recovery. Although the exact number of hours each one of us as individuals needs to function optimally varies, if you’re getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, your recovery and basic cognition will be impaired. And, if you think you can get that sleep back, you can’t. Sleep doesn’t operate like a bank, you can’t accumulate a debt to be paid off later. Many experts equate four or five hours of sleep to showing up to life drunk, with motor functions severely impaired, cognitive function reduced and brains cloudy. Sleep isn’t a lifestyle luxury, it’s a non-negotiable necessity and life support system. Squeaking through life in a state of constant sleep deprivation shouldn’t be a badge of honor.
Parents, especially those with little kiddos: we know it’s tough, and to us, you guys are superheroes. Modeling good sleep hygiene and demonstrating the importance of sleep and routine will help those kiddos establish healthy patterns as well. By setting and sticking to your own routine, and not inadvertently sending the message that staying up late is a fun or a privilege, you can demonstrate healthy sleep behaviors for the whole family.
The point of this article isn’t to place too much pressure on sleep. Life is tough, families are busy, things happen. The point is to help you get to a place where you feel comfortable and confident prioritizing sleep as a part of your training. If the choice was between getting adequate sleep or getting a workout in, your coaches would always prefer you to get the sleep. Don’t stress if you have a tough night of sleep before a race or a big work presentation. One bad night isn’t a catastrophe. The takeaway should be that sleep is important, and if you struggle getting enough, you’re not alone. We’re here to help.
Here are our tips for getting better sleep.
THE DOs and DON’Ts to Help Restore and Build Good Sleep Hygiene
The number one inhibitor to a good night of restful sleep is alcohol. Alcohol disrupts your ability to create deep delta waves during deep sleep periods, which help with memory assimilation, cell regeneration, cognitive function, and just good old fashioned rest. It also increases your likelihood of feeling drowsy or just awful the next day. Athletes on training schedules are even more sensitive to alcohol, with a beer or glass of wine a little too late in the evening reducing sleep quality tremendously. Guidelines from The Surgeon General greenlight two drinks a day for men, and one for women, but sleep experts recommend cutting back, or avoiding alcohol altogether for quality shut-eye. if you’re having trouble falling asleep, sleeping through the night or waking up drowsy, it’s writing cutting back or cutting out evening beverages.
Few things beat a strong cup of coffee (or if you’re TJ, mate) in the morning. Caffeine has a half-life of up to five hours, which means it stays in your system for a long time after the last sip. If you’re an afternoon latte drinker (or even iced-tea) that caffeine is still in your system by the time you’re trying to hit the hay. That pushes your natural sleep routine back, which decreases the quantity and quality of your sleep. Consider reducing caffeine consumption to before two p.m., or before noon if you’ve had persistent sleep struggles. Caffeine initially stimulates your body to produce more dopamine and adrenaline, two chemicals that are linked to positive mood and increased energy, things that make us feel good, but that can cause a serious crash once the effects wear off. Try to avoid the peak and trough cycles of responding to every dip in energy throughout the day with a cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage as these cycles can leave you exhausted and drowsy when you wake up.
Avoid Naps & Build a Routine
Naps can hurt the quality of your sleep and prohibit establishing a healthy sleep routine. If you’re looking for better sleep, resist the temptation of an afternoon nap as it can delay your bedtime significantly and make it hard for you to keep a consistent sleep routine. Instead, set a solid bedtime hour and stick with it (yes, even on weekends). When building your routine, set two alarms and stick to them. Set a bedtime alarm to tell you when it’s time to begin transitioning to sleep (ie: turning off computers, TVs, brushing your teeth, switching to a book, getting in bed for a meditation.) The second alarm is to get you up in the morning. It’s always better to sleep seven hours per night, rather than a handful of hours during the week and excessively on the weekend. The payoffs to good sleep come from consistent nights of good rest and a little less time pressing the snooze button, which only makes you feel groggier when you do get up. Find what works for you and listen to how your body feels. Set seven to nine hours aside each evening for sleep, and as a general rule of thumb, avoid screens for an hour before bedtime. Setting up a routine will help you develop consistency in your sleeping patterns and over time lead to overall better sleep. A pre-bed meditation can be built right into this routine and makes for a nice buffer between Netflix and chill and bedtime.
Get Outside & Use Natural Light
20 minutes outside, like a walk with your morning coffee, can help invigorate you and set your circadian rhythms. Studies have shown this leads to better sleep in the evening. It helps turn off the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps wind you down at the end of the day and make you sleepy. Consider replacing your afternoon cup of coffee with a stroll outside. 20 minutes of fresh air and sunshine can give you more sustainable energy than an extra latte, but won’t leave you feeling jittery.
For athletes, this is usually no issue. Train, get tired, eat, sleep and the cycle continues. Training helps your sleep in two ways. First, exercise can lead to better sleep because it has the potential to reduce sleep-inhibiting anxiety. It also wears you out and makes you tired. The physical aspect of tiring yourself out is key. Ever have trouble falling asleep on rest days? Yeah, that’s real. For individuals who don’t regularly exercise, an exercise regimen can help a better sleep routine as well.
The Bedroom Is For Sleeping
Saving the bedroom for sleep is important for establishing or maintaining good sleep hygiene. This may be especially important now as we all spend more time working from home. Your brain associates different environments with specific activities and anticipates them. For example, walk into your kitchen and you may feel yourself getting hungry even if it isn’t lunchtime. Go to the gym you’ve been and the body begins to anticipate and build excitement around a workout. The bedroom is no different. So, sometimes a few strict rules need to be applied to that space. No screens (TV, Computer, Tablet, Phone) in the bedroom. These devices can overstimulate, engage your sympathetic nervous system, and lessen your likelihood of relaxing into sleep. Just the same, discussing work, stressful life matters in the bedroom, all contribute to confusion associations about what the bedroom is for. Save challenging budget discussions for breakfast. The bedroom is for sleeping, meditation, and generally only activates that promote rest.
Matt Walker, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California Berkley and author of “Why We Sleep?” states that your body needs to drop its core temperature by two to three degrees to initiate sleep and maintain that temperature to stay asleep. Cool your room down. Set a thermostat to 65 degrees or 18 celsius. It’s easier to sleep in cooler, rather than hotter conditions.
Tossing & Turning
Don’t fret! Tossing and turning is normal, it happens to even the best sleepers and can be caused by a ton of variables. No one or two bad nights of sleep will ever determine your potential, or race day performance. Always be mindful that we’re looking for consistency and progress over time, just like in training.
If you’re tossing and turning for a long period of time, get out of bed. Go to a different room and do something different. This helps break the association that the brain has with the bedroom. We want that association to be about sleep, not wakefulness and tossing and turning. Read a book or journal. Only return to your bed when you are sleepy.
Magnesium one hour for bed can help ease tense muscles and stress. A breathing mindfulness practice or meditation can help as well. Natural, over the counter solutions like melatonin and valerian root, should be used sparingly and at the direction of a doctor as they have side-effects.