Strategies for quality sleep
Issue: Volume 29 Number 1
Sleep is something we often take for granted. It is also often the first thing we sacrifice when we are busy, and poor sleep is often the first sign of stress or anxiety. However quality sleep is vital to our health, our well-being, and our performance.
Sleep is also quality recovery. It is essential that athletes normalise their sleeping patterns to maximise the recovery process. Poor quality and quantity of sleep will compromise tissue regeneration, diminish immune and hormonal functioning, decrease effective cognitive processing (thinking), and increase fatigue and pre-disposition to injury. Research has proven that one or two bad night’s sleep before a competition or major event will not harm performance in any way, provided you are not worried about it. However prolonged poor sleep may negatively affect performance, recovery and health.
If you have any of the following sleep signs and symptoms you may need to address your sleeping habits:
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Delayed onset – taking more than 15-20 minutes to fall asleep
- Broken and restless sleep
- Inability to wake up refreshed in spite of spending longer in bed
How much sleep is enough?Our society seems to work on the adage that eight hours sleep is the magic answer. However this may not be the case, especially for athletes. Sleep deprivation is a very common problem – one that you may not even be aware you have. If you get less than eight hours sleep a night, if you fall asleep instantly or need an alarm clock to wake up, then you can consider yourself sleep-deprived. Sleep experts suggest that the average adult needs 7-9 hours sleep a night. However children and teenagers need more, and athletes need extra sleep to help them recover from the rigours of training. Even mild sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on athletic performance. Cumulative sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce cardiovascular performance, to impair information processing (your athlete may fail to recall tactics or struggle to make effective decisions) and to effect emotional stability. Even minimal levels of sleep loss can cause an increased perception of effort. Sleep deprived athletes will feel more fatigued and probably will not be in the type of mental state needed for a top performance. Athletes should be encouraged to keep a journal to help them work out how much sleep they need each night to perform and feel at their best. My recommendation for athletes is 10 hours per night sleep.
Strategies to get more sleepDelayed onset (difficulty falling asleep) is a common problem with athletes, who often find it difficult to switch off at the end of their busy day. The following strategies are designed to assist athletes and coaches to stop thinking and worrying in bed, and therefore get to sleep much more quickly.
- Most of the thinking and worrying we do in bed needs to be done… it just doesn’t need to be done in bed! Put aside five to 15 minutes during the evening to sit somewhere quietly and let your mind wander through all the thoughts you didn’t have time for during the day. At the end of the time, write down anything that is still on your mind.
- If you suffer from muscular twitches when you are trying to sleep, brought on by a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles then stretch, self-massage or walk (keep your heart rate low) before going to bed.
- Before going to sleep, tell yourself that you are going to have a solid night’s sleep, and that you are going to wake up just before the alarm goes off, feeling alert and refreshed. Start to create the expectation that you will fall asleep quickly and naturally.
- Once you have made yourself comfortable, tell yourself that it is time to sleep now, and do not let yourself continue to think about anything except your breathing (see below).
- Focus on your breathing. When you are deeply asleep your breathing is relatively slow, shallow, chest breathing, with a small pause between the in-breath and the out-breath. Try to simulate this type of breathing. It should feel comfortable.
- Focus on relaxing your body one muscle group at a time, starting from your toes, and working your way up.
- Many people stress about not sleeping, which delays sleep! Say to yourself; “I’ll just lie here and rest. Peaceful rest is nearly as good as sleep”. Use the other strategies outlined to get to sleep.
- Some people fear that if they don’t get enough sleep they will have a breakdown or will perform badly at training, competition or school/work. Poor performance may result if you have prolonged lack of sleep. However one poor night’s sleep (especially if you are nervous before a major competition) will not detract from performance, provided you don’t stress about it.
- It is normal to wake up once or twice during the night. If you do wake up, see it as normal and don’t stress about it. Be happy that you don’t have to get up yet, and focus on breathing and relaxing to help you go back to sleep.
- If you cannot stop thinking/worrying, use thought switching. Replace worrying thoughts with pleasant and relaxing ones. Or only think about your breathing, or focus on one simple thought to clear your head.
- Keep a pen and paper by your bed. That way, if you have a new thought you can write it down to think about tomorrow, and let it go for the night.
- Use good time-management skills. Keep lists of things to do and good schedules. That way you have one less thing to worry about.
- Remember that a lot of the things we worry about never actually happen. Try to avoid worrying about things that might happen.
- When you are happy and stress-free, you sleep better. Eliminate stress and unhappiness from your life and your sleep will dramatically improve (as will your life!).
Other strategies to promote quality sleep
- Make sure the environment is right (not too hot, cold, noisy, comfortable bed etc).
- Make sure you have regular and appropriate sleep patterns. Sleep routine is very important. Try to get to bed and get up at similar times every day. It is very important that your body clock (your body temperature and light-dark cycles) are synchronised with your sleep patterns and your daily routine.
- Make up for lost sleep as soon as possible.
- Try to identify and reduce life stress.
- If you wake up during the night try not to turn on bright lights.
- Only use your bed for sleep. Don’t watch TV, read, or do work whilst in bed.
- Avoid caffeine (tea, coffee, chocolate, cola drinks), alcohol and large meals four hours prior to sleep. Small snacks before bed are OK, particularly if you are hungry. A glass of warm milk can sometimes help you feel sleepy.
- Sleep onset normally occurs as the body temperature starts to drop, so avoid raising your body temperature immediately prior to sleep. This means avoiding exercise and very hot showers/baths just before bed and be careful not to overheat the room in winter or use excessive bedclothes and blankets. You can also try cooling the body in hot weather by having a cool or tepid shower or using an air conditioner.
- If you cannot get to sleep after 20 minutes, get up and do something boring and unstimulating until you feel sleepy.
- Minimise (no more than 30 minutes) or discontinue daytime naps.
- Sleep medications are available, but not highly recommended. They tend to allow you to fall sleep quickly, but your sleep tends to be disturbed, fragmented and unrefreshing. Furthermore, prolonged use of sleeping pills brings tolerance – you will need to take more and more of them.
- Relaxation training and stress management may help relieve sleep problems.
- Employing good sleep practices will help you to optimise your ability to absorb the rigours of physical activities and workload while ensuring quality performance and recovery.
Sweet dreams!: how to wake up refreshed and get the most out of your day
- Expect to wake up feeling refreshed and alert.
- The first thing you should do after waking is have a long, slow stretch in bed, and smile!
- Have a good morning routine so you can start the day off with no stress.
- Prepare for your day the night before, so you don’t have to rush in the morning.
- Get up early. Enjoy the peace and quiet. Do something productive or enjoyable.