4 Ways to Get Better Sleep for Optimal Performance Recovery

4 Ways to Get Better Sleep for Optimal Performance Recovery

Getting better sleep comes from simple shifts in habit and routine. Here’s what to prioritize.

In the endurance community, there are a million marginal gains that are discussed to death on forums, debated, and fine-tuned for what might amount to a small increase in performance or recovery. While some of these hacks could be beneficial, you first need to get the basics right. In this piece, we take aim at nailing the basics of a solid night’s sleep so your body can rest and recover. Herein, four ways to get better sleep.

1. Cut Caffeine and Curb Alcohol

If I’m doing a late interview, writing at night, or cramming in an evening workout, I like to drink a late afternoon or early evening cappuccino to keep my body and brain going strong. The trouble is that the half-life of caffeine is a minimum of six hours and can be up to 48, so if I consume 200 mg at 7 PM, 100 mg are still circulating in my system at 1 AM (assuming that I metabolize this stimulant quickly). The reason caffeine combats sleepiness is that it prohibits adenosine — a brain chemical released to build sleep pressure throughout the day — from binding with its receptors. Drinking caffeine later in the day can therefore delay sleep onset and degrade sleep quality. 

On the other end of the stimulant-sedative cycle, alcohol disrupts sleep in several ways. One of these is by signaling to the brain that there is a toxin in the bloodstream, which needs to be removed. So the body kicks its detox process into high gear to — for want of a better term — pee the alcohol out. This prevents the nervous system from downshifting into a rest/digest state of recovery. So if you want to put a premium on sleep, try to cut out caffeine early to midafternoon and consume no more than two beers, shots, or glasses of wine per night. Try to drink these earlier if possible (think happy hour) so your body has time to flush out the booze before preparing you for sleep. 

2. Go Dark Before Going to Sleep

Our bodies were not designed to handle bright lights at night. Before kerosene lamps and Edison’s invention of the electric lightbulb, the only illumination in the evening was wood-based fire, which is in a whole different spectrum to the horrendously bright LEDs we’ve come to put throughout our homes. Once they’d put out their fires, our forebears would spend a couple of hours in the gathering gloom talking or telling stories and then bed down for the night far earlier than most of us do these days. And they certainly weren’t checking Instagram, Slack, or email on tiny, bright screens before they hit the hay. 

Our modern lighting and screen addiction is wreaking untold havoc on our chronobiology. We’re sleeping less and with far worse quality than our grandparents and the generations that preceded them, and it’s making us fatter, more emotionally unstable, and less able to recover from the training that we put so much time and effort into. One of the easiest ways for you to get higher grade shuteye is to shove your screens aside at dinnertime and resolve not to look at them again until morning. If you have to work or want to watch a movie, try to dim your computer or TV, or opt for a pair of blue light-blocking glasses. Then make sure that your room is as dark as Christian Bale’s Batcave so that light doesn’t disrupt your well-earned rest. 

3. Get Hot, Then Cold

Just about everybody in the performance community is all about dry saunas these days. This makes total sense, given that long-term Scandinavian studies have proven the immunity-boosting, health-promoting benefits. Yet for many people who don’t have a nearby gym or health club that offers a sauna, such heat therapy remains out of reach. This is where something that most of us have ready access to comes into play: the humble bathtub. 

A study from Loughborough University in the UK concluded that taking a nice hot soak between 104℉ and 109℉ around 30 to 90 minutes before bed significantly improved sleep quality and reduced the time it took participants to drop off. If you can listen to calming music and/or read a magazine or book while you’re soaking, you can amplify these advantages. Then once you’ve clambered out, support your cooling process by setting your thermostat between 60℉ and 65℉, which sleep experts like Chris Winter — author of The Rested Child and consultant for many pro athletes and teams — have found reduces the number of nighttime disturbances. 

4. Create a Consistent Evening Routine

If, like me, you’re a parent, you’re very familiar with the consistent nighttime routine for your children that looks something like dinner, bath, story time, bed. There’s a reason for dialing in this sequence — it provides predictability and comfort for your kid that helps them sleep. But the trouble is, when we reach adulthood, we typically abandon an evening routine in favor of randomness. Consider your bedtimes over the past week. Were they within 30 minutes of each other or scattered like 9:30 PM, 1 AM, 11:30 PM, and so on? 

If it was the latter, you’re unwittingly disrupting your circadian rhythm. This is exacerbated if your wake times also vary wildly. Then if you do different things before turning in every night, you’re really throwing a big wrench in the works. While you might be sick and tired of podcasters and biohackers pushing evening routines, their advice is actually legit in this case. So try to find activities that are calming and will help you cycle down from the hyper-stimulation of your daytime hours. Research from UK sleep scientists quoted by The Guardian shows that reading calms people more than anything else, while listening to music, doing some yoga or mobility, and journaling have also been shown to induce a good night’s rest. Once you’ve zeroed in on which of these works for you and what order you should do them in, stick with it, and pair your new evening habits with consistent sleep and wake times to restore a regular circadian cycle. 

References

Faulkner, S. (2017, March 20). A hot bath has benefits similar to exercise. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/a-hot-bath-has-benefits-similar-to-exercise-74600

Miedema, J. (2018, October 13). Back to books: the joy of slow reading. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/13/joy-of-slow-reading-books 

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