Sleep – get on it!

Have you ever found yourself in bed during the wee hours of the morning, tossing and turning, mind racing, laying there just willing yourself to fall asleep?

Well, if you haven’t then bless your soul and begone with you.

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Thanks for joining me, fellow occasionally sleep deprived folk.  Hopefully you find this post informative and helpful.

I reckon everyone has experienced a restless night at some point in their life. But what causes these sleepless nights? Why are some people more prone to them than others? How come it seems to happen more frequently before big events? What can I do about it?

I’ve never been a particularly good sleeper and for a long time I just figured it was the same for everyone.  Turns out it’s not, and I credit my Dad for being the first to let me in on the importance of sleep.  There is one morning in particular that comes to mind: I was sitting at the table eating breakfast when my Dad, for the 5th morning in a row, asked me: when had I fallen asleep?, how had I slept?, and when had I woken up?, in a deliberate fashion (althoughI think he was trying to be casual about it). To which I’m pretty sure I deadpanned back; “Dad, you asked me this yesterday.” and turned back to my cereal.  What followed, at my next ski practice, was a well and thoroughly prepared talk about the importance of sleep for athletes (turns out those morning interrogations were actually research).

Alright, enough background story, time to get down to business.

For athletes, sleep is the cornerstone of recovery. There are two kinds of recover – passive, and active. So unless you’re a serious sleep walker, snoozing is at the head of passive recovery.  When you sleep, your body repairs muscle tissue and your mind has time to rejuvenate.  This is why, when your training load is high, or you’re experiencing a lot of stress, you require more sleep.

Inadequate sleep is directly linked to deterioration of both physical and mental performance.  If your body does not get enough rest it can’t recover.  A lack of recovery leads to the accumulation of fatigue which leaves you feeling bogged down all the time.  So taking a day off training, or throwing in the occasional afternoon nap isn’t a permanent fix for chronic fatigue if you are constantly depriving your body of sleep.

The amount of sleep a person needs will vary depending on their age, activity level, and existing sleep habits.  Generally, as you get older you don’t need as much sleep.  I’m a bit wary saying this… but it’s probably because older people typically spend less time accumulating exercise induced stress and spend more time managing psyche stresses – which causes sleep habits to suffer (for the record by “older” I mean grownups – whoever that may be).  Athletes, who are accumulating stress from training every day, therefore require more sleep than people of similar ages who do not exercise in order to recover.

The second main component of a good nights rest is sleep quality.  While sleep length is definitely more commonly talked about and understood, sleep quality is equally important, though often forgotten.  Sleep quality is based on being able to fall asleep with relative ease, sleep through the night, and wake up at a good time during your sleep cycle. Let’s talk about these three pieces.

Falling asleep

There are few things more frustrating than not being able to fall asleep.  It’s so futile; you can’t exactly “try harder” to fall asleep. So what can you do about it? Well, lets start with things that can be done before you actually get into bed:

    • turn off the electronics!
      Your brain is stimulated by the light emitted from computer screens, phones, and most other artificial lighting, which inhibits the natural onset of sleep. So by powering down an hour or so before bed you can avoid being kept awake late at night. Instead of using electronics before bed, try reading – it tires out your eyes and if you pick a boring book it’ll put you to sleep no problem!
    • exercise earlier!
      Working out produces endorphins that give you an elated feeling and heightened awareness. Sometimes people are so zapped from training it’ll be lights out the moment they hit the sheets, but in most cases it makes going to bed more difficult.  Exercising also elevates your core body temperature (same with taking a hot shower right before bed) which makes it harder to sleep. Normally your body temperature drops a few degrees when you sleep (that’s why its easier to sleep in a cool room than a warm one) so exercising or taking a hot shower right before bed works against your natural biorhythms.
    • eat earlier!
      Going to bed with a bloated stomach doesn’t feel good. Try and plan your evening meal a bit earlier (or just don’t gorge yourself) to give the food some time to start digesting.
    • relax~!
      Before you go to bed try to chill out and calm yourself down a bit. Try doing some of those stretches you were assigned at the start of the year to do on a daily basis (but haven’t). If you have a lot on your mind, write it down. Taking notes of things you need to do or remember takes the strain off your mind to remember them when you wake up and you can rest easy – now all you have to do is remember to look at the piece of paper.
    • establish a routine!
      Keeping your pre-sleep habits consistent will make falling asleep easier because you’ve primed yourself for sleep. You probably won’t be able to do, verbatim, the same thing every night; but having regular a regular pre-bedtime routine with a few cues is still valuable.

Staying asleep

The inability to sleep through the night is usually the result of a sleep disorder, external disturbances, or a full bladder.

External disturbances are things like a change in temperature, noisy roommates, and lighting of the room.  These are all easy to handle. Temperature – get a different blanket, adjust the thermostat or open a window. Noise – get some earplugs or get rid of your roommates. Light – get an eye mask or heavier blinds.

Staying hydrated is important. But it’s not so important that it hampers your ability to sleep well.  Try to wain off the water a bit before going to bed.

Sleep disorders. This is interesting. There is a lot of reading available on the topic and it’s not all worth reading.  I think there is a lot of misinterpretation when it comes to sleep disorders.  People are too quick to assume they have a sleep disorder just because they have a bout of bad sleep.  I know firsthand that sleeping poorly for several consecutive nights sucks, but that doesn’t mean you’re an insomniac – it probably just means you’re stressed.

There are two kinds of insomnia: acute and chronic.  Clinically, insomniacs are people who have difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep that persist for over a month (chronic).  Chronic insomnia occurs more commonly with people who have had lifelong issues sleeping and with people who are perpetually stressed.  Acute insomnia will last for less than a month but persists for several days or weeks and is usually triggered (once again) by stress. So with athletes this may be training stress, travel stress, racing stress, time stress, injury etc…

I can’t say much about how to deal with sleep disorders other than to keep tabs on your sleep.  If sleeping poorly is a regular thing then go see a doctor or talk to somebody about it because unidentified or untreated it can become a serious problem.  Losing a couple hours sleep one night might not seem like a big deal, but over time it adds up – this is called sleep debt.  Hours lost go into the sleep loss bank.  An hour here, a couple hours there and all of the sudden you’re 8hours in debt – that’s a whole nights rest! Some people recover and deal with sleep loss better than others, but it’s still important to recognise how much sleep you lose over time.

Waking up

This is where I’m going to pretend that I understand sleep cycles really well.

It is generally accepted that there are 5 stages of sleep. They are aptly named stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, stage 4, and stage 5.  I’ll make this even easier and split them into two groups: light sleep and deep sleep. Deep sleep, also known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, is when most dreaming occurs. Being woken up during deep sleep leaves you feeling disoriented and groggy, and as far as quality sleep goes – that’s not cool. Ideally, you want to be woken up during the light sleep phase because you’re already more awake.  Unfortunately you can’t tell your alarm clock to “please wake me up during my light sleep phase” … or can you?

There’s an iPhone/iPod touch app called Sleep Cycle that monitors your sleep phase and can be set to wake you up at a more ideal point of rest. I’ve been using it for a while and it’s pretty cool.  To use it you, put your phone/iPod on the mattress near your head when you go to bed, throughout the night it uses its motion sensor/orientation thingy to measure how much you’re moving (which it translates into stage of sleep). Then, when morning rolls around, you can set a window of time where you want to be woken up and it will ring the alarm sometime during that timeframe so hopefully you won’t be caught in deep sleep.  oh and I’m not getting paid to promote the app, it’s already very popular. I think it costs 1.99$, which is cheaper than sleeping drugs so why not.

Alright, well hopefully I’ve left you better informed about the importance of sleep. If you are interested in reading more on the topic there is an excellent article called Sleep, Recovery and Human Performance that you can check out. There is a link to the full article at the bottom of that page, as well as sub-topics also embedded in the page. It’s written for coaches but I think it is a worthwhile read for athletes and parents as well.



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