It doesn’t matter how many miles you log each week, how high your training quality is, or how well you’re coached — if you’re not recovering efficiently, you won’t be able to progress as an athlete. While the biohacking community may be fixated on gaming their morning routine, how you end each day is just as important as how you start it. Here are a few restorative practices that will help you wind down before bed, no matter how hard you train or how hectic your schedule is.
1. Hop Into Hot Water
Ice baths and cold showers have become popular in the past couple of years, and while they offer many benefits — including boosting immunity and increasing mental resilience — the health benefits of getting hot have been more widely documented. Scientists from Loughborough University in the UK performed a study in which they asked one group to cycle for an hour while another group soaked in a hot bath for the same duration. The participants who cycled predictably burned more calories, but the bathers still used as many as they would have on a 30-minute walk.
Perhaps most compelling was a noted metabolic effect — those who took a bath had 10% lower blood sugar levels after their next meal. The bath intervention also prompted a change in inflammatory markers, leading the authors to write that “repeated passive heating may contribute to reducing chronic inflammation, which is often present with long-term diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.”
2. Stop Using Screens Earlier
Of all the things you might be doing to disrupt your sleep, staring at screens and interacting with digital devices is probably the easiest factor to fix. The blue light emitted by your phone, tablet, TV, and other gadgets can trick your brain into perking up at the very time you should be winding down. A cross-university team reviewed the existing literature that correlated screen use with sleep disruption and concluded that nighttime blue light exposure decreases sleep quality, makes it harder to drift off, and reduces the amount of time spent in deep sleep.
Their recommendation? Stop using all screens at least two hours before you turn in for the night. If you have to be on your laptop for work, then install f.lux or a similar program that will let you change the coloring so that it doesn’t overstimulate you or disrupt your circadian rhythm. Not sure how much light a device is emitting? Use f.luxometer with a spectrometer to find out, and then stop using the brightest sources at night to minimize the adverse impact on your rest.
3. Eat Protein
There’s a common narrative that says you shouldn’t eat after seven or eight o’clock at night because it will disrupt your sleep. This might be the case for some people who have chronic sleep issues, but many athletes actually benefit from a post-dinner snack. Adding what Taco Bell used to call the “Fourth Meal” into your routine is a great opportunity to pack in some much-needed extra calories (many active folks are undereating, at the expense of muscle mass and bone density) and a bonus serving of protein.
While it’s usually strength/power athletes who fixate on their protein consumption, endurance competitors need plenty of this vital macronutrient, too. Failure to get enough can compromise training and racing performance, undercut adaptation, and short-circuit recovery. An easy way to get your evening protein fix is to stir a scoop of whey isolate (or, if you’re allergic or intolerant to dairy, a complete plant-based alternative that has all nine essential amino acids) into a bowl of oats. If you’re in a calorie hole, then add in a few nuts and seeds, which will also provide some heart-healthy fats. A team of Dutch researchers found that such a snack increases overnight recovery and protein synthesis, as well as total-body protein balance after exercise.
4. Work on Your Mental Game
There are only so many miles that you can log on the road, track, or trail before your body starts to break down. But even when your muscles have had enough, you can still get in some extra reps by training your mind. Mental skills like visualization, self-talk, and goal setting must be practiced regularly to be effective, but the good news is that investing just a few minutes each evening in a daily mindset practice will soon start to pay dividends. An app like Champion’s Mind can guide you through the full gambit of mental skills and provide practical tips for applying them to your sport of choice.
Two things you can get started with are practicing gratitude and celebrating small wins. Each night, write down three things or people that you were grateful for that day. The more specific you can be, the better. If you want to take this one step further, reach out to someone on your list to let them know how much you appreciate them and why. Second, list three small wins that you achieved today. These don’t have to be world record-level achievements. Maybe you gutted it out during a tough training session, made progress on a work project, or talked out a relationship issue with your significant other. If you take the time to acknowledge and validate such victories, you’ll be better equipped to deal with defeats.
Integrating positive habits into your nightly routine shouldn’t be overly complex or taxing. These are easy and effective practices that you can start implementing immediately — ones that may have a profound impact on your health, mindset, and athletic performance.
Remember that the key to sustainable change is consistency. Stay disciplined in your daily routines — just like you do with your training — and you’ll reap the benefits soon enough.
Faulkner, S. (2017, March 29). A hot bath has benefits similar to exercise. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/a-hot-bath-has-benefits-similar-to-exercise-74600
Hale, L. et al. (2018, April). Youth screen media habits and sleep: sleep-friendly screen-behavior recommendations for clinicians, educators, and parents. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5839336/
Res, P.T. et al. (2012, August). Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22330017/