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4 Bad Habits Subtracting from Your Clients’ Sleep Quality

BY Phil White

Athletes with an inconsistent sleep schedule, consuming caffeine late, drinking too much alcohol or being exposed to digital screens before bed are all subject to poor rest and recovery.

There’s a lot of hype about evening routines that are supposedly conducive to better rest, but what about those poor patterns that your clients might be stuck in that could limit the quality and quantity of their sleep? Here are four all-too-common habits that can overstimulate the nervous system, block the release of rest-inducing neurotransmitters, and send the wrong signals to the brain, along with an antidote for each.

Inconsistent Sleep Schedule

In any area of life, it’s difficult to get consistent results from inconsistent practices. This is certainly the case with rest and recovery. First-time parents learn all too quickly that their only hope of getting worthwhile shuteye is to create a sequential series of nighttime routines for their babies, like bathing, feeding, and storytime, and to then stick to it as often as possible. Yet once these children reach their teenage years and advance into adulthood, such regular evening routines are typically cast aside. The results aren’t as dramatic as a baby or toddler wailing throughout a seemingly never-ending nighttime, but some of the ill effects can be similar, such as struggling to fall asleep, periods of wakefulness, and lack of deep, restorative sleep that leaves you feeling hollowed out in the morning.

Athletes face particular challenges in establishing a regular sleep routine. These include early and late training sessions, fitting in exercise around work and other commitments, and travel to and from races. Add in lifestyle factors like the aforementioned child’s sleep irregularities, and you could see five or six different sleep-wake times over the course of a typical week. In a paper published in the South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, Ranel Venterexplained that “Inconsistent sleep patterns disrupt the internal biological clock and tend to increase the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.” When athletes vary their schedules, “Changing the schedule for more than two days or sleeping one hour longer on weekends disrupts the biological clock.”

She went on to recommend that each of your clients should standardize their sleep pattern by determining how many hours they need nightly. From there, they can adjust their existing sleep-wake times by no more than 30 minutes, recognizing that it can take four to five days to adjust. Even if they sleep poorly, they should try to get up around the same time every day, rolling back their bedtime to compensate if needed. The iPhone has a built-in sleep-wake time function, and to help your clients become more consistent, you could ask them to either share sleep data from their wearables or manually record their sleep-wake times in their daily training log.

Late Caffeine Consumption

Unless you exclusively work with professional athletes, the majority of your training group likely has to juggle their sporting passions with one or more jobs, and even the pros still have to balance the demands of family, friendships, and other commitments. As such, some might only be able to find time to train later in the day or even into the evening. The need to power back up after a long training session can lead to a habitual trip to their local coffee shop drive-thru or to regularly taking a caffeinated pre-workout supplement that provides the desired jolt.

The positive impact of caffeine ingestion and endurance exercise performance is well-documented, so you can hardly blame an athlete who tries to get an edge in this way. Yet, for all the benefits during the session itself, there are also likely to be trade-offs: most significantly, the impact on that night’s slumber. In her book “The Secret Life of Sleep,” Kat Duff explains some of the unintended consequences of caffeine consumption:

It also blocks the ability of adenosine to slow us down with fatigue and drowsiness after long hours of waking activity, masking our tiredness. Neurons fire more rather than less, prompting the pituitary gland to trigger the release of adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. Adrenaline speeds up our heart rates, slows digestion, and tightens muscles to prepare for the emergency. After six or seven hours, when the caffeine wears off, we feel exhausted and depressed, which leads us to…yet another cup. Over time, we sleep less and less deeply, forgoing many of the restorative functions of our nightly slumber.

It’s key to hone in on the timeframe Duff mentions here. On average, the half-life of caffeine is six to eight hours, so if one of your athletes consumed 200 mg at 6 p.m., they’d still have 100 mg keeping them up at midnight. With this in mind, refer to the fix for bad habit #1 above to find each client’s preferred sleep time. Then work backward to determine a reasonable caffeine cutoff point, and ask them to record how well they stick to it (or don’t) daily in TrainingPeaks for a couple of weeks.

Drinking Too Much Alcohol

The caffeine mentioned earlier is only one side of the stimulant-sedative cycle. To help wind down — particularly if it’s from one of those caffeine-fueled evening workouts I highlighted — many athletes turn to a glass or two of something soothing. As with caffeine, timing and dose are key here. There’s nothing wrong with one or two servings in the right context. But if consumed too closely together, too late, or in large quantities, alcohol can have the opposite effect of what your clients are hoping for.

In a video summary from a section of his book Why We Sleep, University of California, Berkeley professor Matthew Walker explained this dichotomy:

Sedation is not sleep, but when people use alcohol in the evening, they mistake the former for the latter. They think alcohol makes them fall asleep quicker. It doesn’t – it’s just knocking out your cortex in the brain and sedating you more quickly, so you lose consciousness, but you’re not going into naturalistic sleep. The second problem with alcohol is that it will litter your sleep with many more awakenings throughout the night, so you’re going to be waking up more frequently, which means that your sleep isn’t what we call consolidated — you don’t have one nice, long, continuous bout throughout the night. The third problem with alcohol is that it’s very good at blocking your dream sleep, something that we call rapid eye movement sleep.

If your athletes want to continue consuming alcohol, advise them to stick to no more than two drinks spread over a couple of hours or more. Eating at the same time can help slow absorption to lessen the buzz that’s really just a brain chemistry disruption. As with their caffeine ingestion, suggest that they use TrainingPeaks to record their before/after alcohol habits and report whether they’ve slept better or worse once they’ve cut back.

Screen Exposure Before Bed

One of the sneakiest sleep disrupters is being exposed to screens at night. Research has demonstrated that the combination of both makes it harder to drift off, limits total sleep duration, elevates wakefulness, and reduces objective and subjective measures of sleep quality. Yet, due to the addictive nature of electronic devices and the social media platforms that run on them, many of your athletes might be in the habit of scrolling in an effort to wind down, even though it’s actually perking them up.

An Italian study of screen habits during the pandemic concluded that:

Participants who increased electronic device usage showed decreased sleep quality, exacerbated insomnia symptoms, reduced sleep duration, prolonged sleep onset latency, and delayed bedtime and rising time. In this subgroup, the prevalence of poor sleepers and individuals reporting moderate/severe insomnia symptoms increased. Conversely, respondents reporting decreased screen exposure exhibited improved sleep quality and insomnia symptoms.

The simplest guideline for your athletes to avoid the sleep-diminishing impact of evening electronic device use is to steer clear of screens for two hours before bedtime. As bright lights can also disrupt sleep, I recommend using lamps that have darker shade instead of overhead illumination powered by LEDs. Then ask your clients to share their overnight resting heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) data with you. You should see a lower number for the former and a higher score for the latter, indicating that their slumber was more restful.


Venter, RR. (2012, January) “Role of Sleep in Performance and Recovery of Athletes: A Review Article.” Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230582637_Role_of_sleep_in_performance_and_recovery_of_athletes_A_review_article.

Duff, Kat. (2019) “The Secret Life of Sleep,” 72.

Walker, Matthew. (2019, July 17.) “Is Alcohol A Good Sleep Aid?” Penguin Books UK. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJHzLUZXiDQ&ab_channel=PenguinBooksUK.

Salfi, Federico, et al. (2021, September.) “Changes of Evening Exposure to Electronic Devices During the COVID-19 Lockdown Affect the Time Course of Sleep Disturbances.” Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34037792.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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