Having been lucky enough to work with hundreds of professional athletes over the years, I can easily say that “sleep” forms a major pillar in their performance and overall health.
Sleep has also become a very trendy nook of scientific research with folks like Dr. Matthew Walker achieving almost celebrity status.
There are now apps devoted to sleep cycles, mattress pads that can be adjusted to the “right temperature”, and supplements promising a great night’s sleep. But how do you weed through the troves of information out there? How do you know which sleep strategies will get you the best bang for your buck?
Here’s my top 5 go-to strategies from the world of sport and how they can be adapted to the non-professional athletes among us.
- No Night Workouts: Not only does working out charge up the body, but it charges up the brain as well. Hormones, metabolites, repair processes, inflammatory cascades; these are all things you want your brain and body dealing with relatively early in the day. How early? That depends on numerous factors, but I normally implement “no workouts” at least 4–5 hours before bed.
2. Caffeine: This is a tough one. Folks metabolize coffee, caffeine and just about everything else in many different ways; some metabolize caffeine quickly, others can take significantly longer. So to keep things simple, we start with an 8-hour buffer between caffeine and bedtime and then adjust up or down from there.
I’ve had some athletes grab a coffee before or after an afternoon nap, while others don’t touch caffeine past 10 am. You’ve got to find what works for you, but you can use the 8 hour window as a good starting point.
3. Shut ‘Er Down: The brain is a master of absorbing information. Most of it goes way beyond our conscious awareness and subconsciously gets embedded into our 85 billion neurons and supporting structures. For this reason alone, albeit there are many many more, it’s a good idea to limit the amount of stimulation getting into your brain before bed.
Build in a techless shutdown period before bed. Keep phones out of the bedroom if possible and keep your sleep space dark and cool. Think about being a pre Homo sapien lying in a cave somewhere and you’ll be going in the right direction.
4. Daytime Sunshine: Many species in the animal kingdom possess an internal sundial. A mechanism that not only understands day and night, but links that clock to the many workings of the body and brain. A good dose of sunshine early in the day tells your brain it’s time to “get up and go” which then also helps your brain to understand when it’s time to shut ‘er down later in the day.
5. Nightwalkers: I’ve worked with hundreds of folks who can fall asleep but can’t stay asleep. This is often for numerous physical and psychological reasons with “stress” forming an underlying backbone to the problem. Stress releases glucocorticoids (stress fighting hormones) long into the night which can often jolt you awake shortly after falling asleep.
One strategy that has worked amazingly well in clinic, though is purely anecdotal, is a dose of fat on the night table. A small ½ teaspoon of your favorite nut or non-nut butter (or my go to favorite which is a shot of good quality extra virgin olive oil) seems to do the trick.
You find yourself wide awake at 2 am? Down a shot of good quality fats which will dampen down the glucocorticoid response and help you get back to sleep. Just make sure there are no sources of sugar if choosing to go the nut butter route.
“Well, what about booze?”
“You didn’t mention anything about food intake or massage.”
It’s tough to stop at five. These are valid points and we could keep going. These are simply five low hanging fruit that have been successful for us in clinical and performance scenarios.
Truth is, there is no exact recipe that will work for you. Improving your sleep habits/hygiene often takes a significant amount of trial and error, and what works one day may not work the next. Give these things a good shot, keep track of how you’re feeling over time, and look for the patterns and strategies that end up working best for you.