A conversation I often have with athletes goes something like this:
Athlete: Man, over the last few weeks I just feel like I’m constantly playing catch-up at the gym. Every barbell feels way heavier than it should; my times during workouts are sluggish; I never feel recovered.
Coach: How’s your nutrition been?
Athlete: Great, I’ve been eating pretty much nothing but Territory meals and haven’t really been going out much; even on the weekends I’ve been taking it pretty easy and not really drinking or anything.
Coach: How’s your sleep?
Athlete: Oh, gosh, terrible. Five hours on a good night.
Coach: . . .
Even though, in the above example, this athlete’s nutrition and fitness regime seem to be squarely within the range of optimal, let’s start with the assumption that multiple aspects of his or her life (as well as our) life are compromised. We have to assume there is lots of room for improvement. Very few people have the luxury of working out exactly when they want to, eating exactly what and when they need or want to, and rarely do people have the time or ability to spend half of their day engaged in recovery activities.
So, we will operate under the assumption that multiple aspects of your life are compromised: your sleep, your lifestyle, your nutrition, maybe even your fitness training. And in many cases, it may be things beyond your control. The best thing we can do is buffer that and control what we can control. Here, we tackle sleep.
Below are a list of things you can and should do to optimize your sleep, if at all possible. Then, should you choose to be inquisitive, read on for further explanation in regards to some of the items.
Sleep Hygiene 101:
It needs to be pitch black in your room, no light, no screens, no phones. Get them out of there. We are talking Vin Diesel “Pitch Black.”
No noise, save white noise. White noise is more than acceptable if that’s what you’re into.
Keep your bedroom pretty icy cold. In the mid-60’s if you can. Layer up with some heavy blankets.
Sleeping on anything but your back is poison to your body. Most of us are extension sensitive (we over-arch our backs throughout the day), so try to sleep in what is referred to as “flexion.” There should be a slight “C” shape from the base of your skull to the base of your tailbone. Your lumbar/low back should NOT be off the mattress, feet should be together (not crossed at the ankles or figure-foured with your foot tucked behind your knee) . Get a pillow-top mattress, that will help facilitate this. (Author note: A much cheaper solution is grabbing yourself a memory foam mattress topper. My wife and I have one, and it’s lovely.)
While eight hours is solid, get nine or more. Six or less… you are diabetic for the day. Dean Karnazes (Google him, he’s an absurdly talented and accomplished athlete), sleeps eleven hours out of every 24.
Do some light mobility work on a foam roller for about 10 minutes before you go to sleep at night; do not get too intense with it, nothing painful, just some light, surface-level soft tissue work.
Put the phone/tablet away at least 60 minutes before you lay down. Set your alarm, plug the device in, set it to airplane mode, and place it face down. Then forget it.
Wake up slow.
Sleeping in silence and without light (including light from screens) has been well-documented in dozens of scientific and medical journals as beneficial. Lights from electronics disrupt the function of the suprachiasmatic nuclei, which help our internal clocks orient themselves to external light. Additionally, your body, to rest and recover, needs to cool off. You see athletes at the highest levels sit in ice baths between events or after games/matches/competitions. This is not to make their muscles less sore (well, maybe it is a bit); it is more to lower their overall core temperature so they can fully recover between events, especially when competing in high heat across multiple days. You, as a real person not competing with the 1% of the 1%, need to slowly and gradually lower body temperature over the course of a night, not a couple of hours. Drop the thermostat; 64-degrees has been documented as ideal for most.
Most humans are extension-sensitive. You sit all day, so your anterior soft tissues (especially your psoas, quads, and abdominals), get short as they adapt to that shape/archetype. The result: when you try to stand up or lay down flat you are forced to arch your low back to reach that the desired position: flat (whether that be horizontal--lying down--or vertical--standing up). When you lay down at night (on your back) do you cross your feet or tuck one foot underneath your other knee? If so, that is your body’s attempt to get out of extension and put your back flat on the mattress. How to resolve this: do the couch stretch for at least ten minutes before bed, and get a softer mattress or memory foam topper. If that’s not possible, though this is not ideal, stuff a pillow under your knees, that should help a bit.
How much sleep are you getting each night? I tested this out a few summers ago when my wife and kids were out of town for a few weeks (read: I got lots of sleep). I purchased a blood glucose meter and obtained a reading each morning. My numbers were awesome, perfect, right where they should have been. My kids came home (including a 3 year old and a 3-month old at the time) and sleep quantity--and quality--dropped off precipitously. My blood glucose numbers were that of a Type II Diabetic. Not good. So, sleep as much as you can. Nine hours or more if you can swing it.
Have you ever had a good, solid back massage? How did you feel when you got up? Were you ready to fight Chuck Liddell and Stone Cold Steve Austin simultaneously? No way, it was all bunnies and rainbows and your voice probably dropped an octave or two. Before you go to bed, just for ten minutes, grab a foam roller and roll around on it. Don’t go nuts, nothing painful, you’re not mobilizing for better mechanics; this is to fire up your parasympathetic nervous system. The PSNS, as it is referred to, is the part of the nervous system that takes over while you sleep. Getting that thing going through foam-rolling will drastically increase the overall quality of your sleep.
Lastly, try to wake up slow. There are products on the market that will slowly raise the light in your room and slowly increase the volume of an alarm sound. If at all possible, try to wake up in this manner, as opposed to a cacophonous smart phone trill that forces you out of bed and immediately into your morning routine.
Control what you can control. Do so to buffer against things beyond your control. Everything in this post regarding sleep, if you have young children, is probably borderline impossible. Good luck getting 9 hours. Good luck not having noise and light blasting every orifice in your head by way of a baby monitor. Pregnant? No sleeping on your back. Waking up slowly? Ha! My Saturday morning usually starts with a 15kg mass of child sprinting down the hall and jumping on my chest at 5:45AM ready to go play with Thomas trains in the living room or wanting to go for a walk in the woods behind the house.
I say again, control what you can control. I can drop the temperature of the room. I can squeeze in some foam rolling and couch stretching before bed. I, personally, can sleep on my back with my shoulders externally rotated. I’m doing my best, and so should you.