Sleep has become one of the hottest topics in sports performance. The name of the game is no longer dependent on who can spend the most time in the pain cave but instead who can recover the quickest. We've talked about its importance before but today I set out to create a compensatory list of ways to improve your sleep and therefore improve your recovery.
In Elloitts most recent blog he discussed the importance of sleep. Sleep is the most important time for your body to repair itself. While some may say laying in bed is a waste of time, your body would disagree.
There has been an influx of products that may or may not improve sleep. from sleep tracking devices, blue light blocking glasses, sleep aids, supplements, smart mattresses, white noise machines...the list goes on. Today we will explore an optimized sleep environment, review a a few ways to improve your sleep as well as discuss a few of the products listed above.
When we think about sleep hygiene does not typically come to mind. Aside from brushing your teeth and hopefully having clean sheets, it seems like hygienic practices wouldn't apply to sleep or sleep quality. This is where many are mistaken. There are tons of gadgets and "hacks" to improve sleep but trying to use every trick in the book can actually be counterproductive. You become stressed about using your re-timer glasses and sipping the proper temperature chamomile tea, all while being hypnotized. Some of these tools are great but you always want to start with the basics.
Let's focus on a few key practices to improve your sleep quality.
Sleeping in a dark atmosphere is key. Darkness signals our bodies to wind down and go to bed. Modern society has created two issues on this front. First, there is an abundance of unnatural light in our world. Street lights, blinking LEDs on TVs, alarm clocks and other minuscule light can be disruptive. Try and minimize this light by keeping your TV in the living room and using dark curtains or blinds to block outside light. You can even take it a step further by either unplugging devices or covering small lights with black electrical tape. Most disruptive of all is our increased screen time from phones, tablets or computers. It is best to limit screen time before bed, try and give yourself around an hour of screen free time before going to sleep. This means setting your alarm and checking your email before you begin your evening routine. There are a few companies out there who have created glasses that can be worn to limit blue light exposure from screens. Glasses like these or apps like flux can be useful but are no substitute for cellular abstinence. This is one of the hardest practices to be consistent with but it makes a world of difference. Staying off your device also helps keep you calm so you don't go to bed fresh off a Facebook argument about fake news.
Daytime Light Exposure
In contrast to our last point, light exposure is also important for sleep quality. A morning walk with the dog or coffee on the patio is a great way to start your day. This allows you to be fully awake for work and will help you get a restful nights sleep. If you're trapped in an office, try and take advantage of your lunch break, get out and walk or go for a run. Try and always find a little time to spend outside, this will help your body maintain a proper sleep cycle.
While the thermostat control can be a hot topic in any household its better to cool things off in the evening. The sweet spot for a sleeping temperature is around 64 degrees Fahrenheit but a range of 60-67 can be a good compromise. This is also a practice that can get expensive. New mattresses, pillows and sheets advertise themselves as cooling. Myself and Dr. Sprouse have both tested out SHEEX performance sheet sets, and while it may be placebo they are quite nice. Aside from a new mattress, a little bump in your electrical bill is much cheaper than other recovery methods that prove less effective than proper sleep.
Caffeine and other Stimulants
"I can drink coffee and sleep fine" - Lots of people
While you might be able to fall asleep after a late espresso this may be compromising your sleep quality. There is no set time to cut off your stimulant intake but avoiding overconsumption of stimulants in the afternoon will improve your sleep and energy in the long run. The 2:30 feeling is more than just a marketing strategy by 5 hour energy. However, other cultures deal with this feeling in a much different way than we do. Afternoon siestas and Country wide nap time may be impossible for the busy American but if possible, give it a try. Another clever trick comes from our mates over the pond. Tea, without excess caffeine, is an effective way to trick yourself into staying alert. There is typically a drop in body temperature in the mid-early afternoon hours that leads to drowsiness. A warm tea can help trick your body into keeping the temperature up thus negating some of the afternoon drowsiness. I credit Matt Dixon of purple patch fitness for filling me in on this little trick. It may be rough to cut caffeine for the first week or so but as your sleep improves so will your energy thus relieving you of the caffeine cravings.
It is best to skip the pre bed feast on most occasions. This does not mean neglecting post workout fueling or sacrificing nutrition. Refuel with what is necessary but avoid overfeeding in the evening hours. This is easy to do while watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram providing you even more reason to limit screen time during the evening. One thing that can be useful is a small bedtime snack. For people completing a moderate - vigorous exercise program bedtime protein ingestion can be a useful aid in recovery. A recent study review performed by the School of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism(NUTRIM) noted many studies supporting pre bedtime protein ingestion. You can read the full study here. They suggest using a casein based protein supplement before bed but there are other options you can explore.
I listed supplements last because you should develop a good practice of sleep hygiene before supplementing your routine with various products. In certain situations, such as traveling, it is difficult to maximize your hygiene so supplements can be useful.
- Melatonin - Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain to regulate your sleep-wake cycles. Low doses of 1-3mg can be useful on occasion to help with sleep. It is best to reserve this for times when you are unable to practice other previously discussed methods.
- Magnesium - Taking magnesium can help relax muscles and reduce stress allowing you to have more restful sleep. Products like calm are a great option for an evening magnesium supplement. The Thorne multivitamin also contains magnesium in its evening blend. If you are taking magnesium before bed be sure you do not ingest it alongside any dairy products as this will block its absorption in the body.
- Reishi Mushroom Blend - Companies like Four Sigmatic and Host Defense have created products containing a blend of mushrooms that claim a variety of health benefits. One spore that is suggested to help with stress relief and calming is Reishi. Four Sigmatic has a hot cider reishi that is a nice way to wind down at the end of the day.
- CBD - CBD oil was recently removed from WADA's banned substance list and its prevalence has increased 10 fold in health stores around the country. CBD oils are synthesized from industrialized hemp and tout a variety of health benefits. These oils are completely legal and are available to purchase in most health stores. The product has attracted Pro cyclists and other investors into the market as the total benefits seem abundant, and it is believed there are many to still be discovered. One of the earliest companies to release a CBD Product is Charlottes Web. These supplements can be taken at any time but show value as a sleep aid.
Wearable devices often offer some sort of sleep tracking feature that can be useful and also worthless. The same can be said for various phone apps and other devices including smart mattresses. I personally like the feature on my Garmin 935, it tracks movement and HR to estimate deep and light sleep. Other devices like the Whoop band delve a little further into sleep metrics. The Whoop tracks body temperature, heart rate, as well as heart rate variability and movement. It then gives you a sleep score each morning. Scores from wearables can be useful but always check in with yourself before you check your device. Subjectively measuring your sleep by recording it in an app like Training Peaks can also be useful. This may seem like too much but consistently declining sleep quality or length can be a good indicator it is time to change something up with your routine whether it be training or your pre bed routine.
So, you've tried it all and still wake up feeling tired day in and day out. You still have options before you go for the strong pharmaceutical sleep aids. One of these options is doing a sleep in study at a sleep center near you. These centers track a large variety of metrics and can help discover the underlying causes of your sleep problems. Many people struggle to sleep because of undiagnosed conditions such as sleep apnea. These centers are typically easy to find, while its not cheap, it's a worthy investment in your, and potentially our significant others, health and sanity.
One last note
Don't try everything at once. It can be overwhelming trying to create a bedtime routine that optimizes sleep so its best to take things one step at a time. Start with limiting your screen time or dropping the temperature in your house. Slowly add new routines in as the others become habit. Don't overwhelm yourself, the last thing you want is to lay in bed worrying whether it's 65 or 63 degrees.