Sleep is possibly the most powerful performance enhancer. It is naturally occurring and it’s free! There are many plans out there telling you how to eat and train, but few explain how to make the most of sleep. Sleep is deemed so important that the Guinness Book of World Records will no longer accept attempts at the longest duration of wake time as it is seen as too big a risk to wellbeing.
At Athletic Thinking our aim is to improve all aspects of your health and wellbeing. We want you to achieve both your personal and professional aspirations and that is why we feel sleep is so important. This article will help you make a start on improving your sleep; it will tell you what tools are available to help and point you towards other resources. As you are reading, start to think about what your sleep quality is like, how long you sleep for and the quality of your sleep environment. And remember, this is only the start – you must review your sleep habits and behaviours on a regular basis.
Why is it so important to sleep?
In his book, ‘Why We Sleep’, Matthew Walker goes into detail about the importance of sleep. For all of us, regardless of age, sleep is the time our bodies make sense of the information we have gathered throughout the day. The early part of your night’s sleep is when your body is opening its internal filing cabinet and storing all the information in the right place. Your body is making important connections between what you have learnt and what you already know. The swing between a good sleep and a poor sleep is potentially 50% of what you have learnt. In his book, Walker reviews studies that show how the retention of new skills is 30% better after a full night’s sleep. By contrast, they are potentially 20% worse if followed by a poor sleep. Similar swings are shown in the amount of information we retain, hence the saying: ‘sleep on it’.
When should you be sleeping?
If we were all exactly the same the answer to this question would be a lot more straightforward. We all have different requirements for how much sleep we need as well as when we find it best to sleep. The body has a natural circadian rhythm that generally sets our sleep and wake cycle, but this is influenced by different chronotypes. There are those of us that like to get up and enjoy the mornings (the classic ‘lark’) and those who find themselves wide awake in the evenings (the ‘night owl’).
When it comes to sleep it is important to remember that not all hours are equal. Going to sleep at 02:00 and still getting 8 hours is not the same as starting your sleep before midnight. The opportunity for your body to sort out what you have learnt comes in the deep sleep hours (Non-Rapid Eye Movement, NREM), which, in the circadian rhythm, are early in the night. If you go to sleep later these hours are missed and are not made up for in the early part of a sleep that begins after midnight. Conversely, the opportunity to learn from information you have absorbed during the day and to be creative in your thinking comes from sleep had during the early hours, between 04:00 and 06:00. If you are regularly awake during this time you are missing the chance to start the day full of ideas!
How are you sleeping?
A further factor to consider is how you are sleeping physically. This is impacted by being left or right-handed. The classic position for sleep is in the foetal position with our strong hand/side up. It is also important to have your own space and not have another person breathing on you in bed. In this case, the ideal scenario would be a left and right-handed partner sharing a bed so that each person can comfortably face the outside with their strong or dominant arm up. If we are really going for it, ‘larks’ and ‘owls’ also make good partners, as one person can take care of the morning tasks and one person can sort the evening jobs, but of course, in reality this often doesn’t work out to be the case!
Is sleep really broken into cycles?
We are often told that we need 8 hours of sleep and our modern lifestyles usually dictate that we stay awake for the entire day. In his book, ‘Sleep’, Nick Littlehales goes into much greater detail about how much sleep we should be getting and when, as well as what the make-up of a ‘good’ night’s sleep is.
Sleep happens in 90-minute cycles, starting from the point we enter a sleep state. Each cycle consists of a pattern during which we go into deep sleep, followed by an upward trajectory towards wakefulness. As we go through the night the deepness of each cycle is gradually reduced until we wake. This point comes at the end of 5 full cycles or 7.5 hours of sleep. This means that over the course of 7 days we should be aiming for 35 sleep cycles. The common misconception however is that all these cycles must be gained at night. It is only in modern society that sleep has become something that must be done during the night-time and which is followed by a long period of wakefulness.
So, how do you make the most of your sleep…?
Cool down for and warm up from sleep
At Athletic Thinking we don’t only recommend warm-up and cool-down for exercise: it’s for sleep too. Start preparing for sleep each evening before it gets to bedtime. Aim to use the 60 minutes prior to sleep to make the most of those precious hours of shut eye. Clear your mind from the day by unloading any thoughts onto a piece of paper or wherever you keep your notes, reduce the number of choices you have to make the following morning by getting your clothes ready the night before and start turning down the lights, ideally using wall lights or lamps for a warm glow. These small steps signal to your body that you are ready to sleep.
The same level of preparation should be taken in the morning to help you wake up. Aim to hydrate well with water before any other drink. Get some natural light into your system for a minimum of 15 minutes. Finally, aim to fuel well for the day with a breakfast that will underpin the rest of your nutrition.
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