Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.
I hope all who read the first part of this series have discovered how much sleep they should be getting (link here. Do yourself a favour and find out how much sleep you need if you haven't already). For some people this might be a bit of a surprise, to others not so much.
How much sleep have you been getting every night? Have you been tracking your sleep constantly?
If you haven’t made a habit of recording how much sleep you get every night, this should start being a priority. It is a very small change that is very beneficial for all kinds of people, and simple. Just by wearing your smart/running watch to bed every night, you should easily be able to track your sleep. Most watches nowadays are able to do this. Wherever your watch syncs to (e.g. phone, computer, tablet, etc.), you should be able to see your sleep data. For some people, the amount of sleep they average every night might be an eye opener.
For some who read this, they already might perform these strategies to maximise their sleep. But, for those who are looking to find ways to improve their sleep to help improve their performance, here are three strategies you can start putting in place at home.
Strategy 1 - know your routine and make it as repeatable as possible
Whenever I ask people what they’ve been doing in their day, they’ll have a rough idea of what they've done and how hard they have completed these tasks. However, they don’t remember the full story, something that I can understand especially if you are working long days. But, as mentioned in part 1, you need to know how long you are working for and how hard you are doing it.
What should be a new habit for you is to start recording your activities and whereabouts in some form of journal or note taking app. Even doing this from the night before and editing this as you go along (or before bed) can really make a difference to know what you have completed on any given day. I talked about this in ‘Staying on top of sport and your life’ (link here), if you would like more information on this beautiful tip.
Some days you might expect to do a whole lot more than you anticipated, others you might do less. Even for tracking your physical activity, you can use this journal to report how hard you felt training was on certain days. This tip is important as it can be very useful to track how much work you are ACTUALLY doing in a day.
The second part of this tip is really useful for improving performance. By sticking to a similar routine, we can be more productive. Again, this just doesn’t apply to running, but to work life, school, hobbies, etc. The vast majority (if not all) of the best athletes, celebrities and masterminds throughout history stuck to a very rigid and similar routine, day in day out.
For example, Mark Wahlberg has a very rigid routine that he follows daily, even when it comes to filming new movies. There are a plethora of websites/blogs that show this (link to one here), but you see that he sticks to a routine, and doing this has helped him get to the top and, more importantly, it has helped him stay there.
Now whilst we all don’t have personal chefs and millions of dollars to spend on owning gym equipment like he does, I am certain that anyone can follow a routine. Just like training, a routine becomes easier to follow as one practises it more and more.
So how does a routine (and sticking to it) help our sleep? Simple. If you schedule enough sleep, and you repeat the same process over & over & over again, you’ll make time for enough sleep, and therefore receive the full benefits of a good night's sleep. You will see the benefits of this over a long term period, as you keep on attaining better performance outcomes.
This improvement won't just be evident in races, but also in your life.
Strategy 2 - read a real book 30 minutes before bed
We are so caught up in our work and social media these days, that many of us don’t schedule enough time in our day to read a book, whether it be a fiction novel, science, an autobiography; I could go on. Instead, many of you who are reading this blog will spend at least 20 minutes scrolling through various social media websites, texting last minute messages, watching Youtube fails, etc. all right before you try to get some sleep.
One of the big consequences from scrolling through our phones before bed is the emission of blue light. To put it simply, blue light is one of the three emitted lights absorbed by our retina, alongside red and green light. It can help boost mood, attention and reaction times, even help keep us awake. However, this is not what we want when getting ready for bed (Harvard, 2020).
This blue light can trick our brain to thinking that we still have tasks to do, and suppress the release of melatonin. This is another one of the many chemicals in our brains “drug cabinet” and helps us regulate our sleep cycles. If this hormone is suppressed, our quality of sleep reduces, which can lead to a reduction in quality of your recovery process, as I mentioned in part 1.
Because of these negative effects of blue light, this is why I recommend reading a hardcopy (real) book before bed. Although organisations will tell you to avoid bright blue light (e.g. your phone on full brightness with no filter) 2-3 hours before bed (Harvard, 2020), reading for that long can be quite unrealistic and unmanageable for someone who hasn’t read a novel for a while.
Instead, try using your phone less and less each night in the couple of hours before your routined sleep time. Then you can start reading the book you’ve chosen. Lately I have been reading 80/20 running by Matt Fitzgerald, because I like to read books like this before I go to bed. However, you do not have to follow my footsteps, you might start reading Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, whatever you enjoy.
Reading should never be a punishment, it should be a pleasure. By reading at night we can help open, and relax, our minds.
Tip 3 - Keep your bedroom cool. Not too hot, or too cold
Everyone knows the agony of attempting to sleep through Summer in 25 degrees C. You toss and turn, trying to find the coolest spot on your bed to stick your boy on top of to fall back to sleep. It’s frustrating and annoying, and you’ll notice how long you sleep for, and its quality, will decrease.
There is research to suggest that the optimal sleeping room temperature range is somewhere in between 15-22 degrees celsius (Hatfield, 2007; Caddick et. al, 2018), but many websites and research papers tend to have different specific ranges. Sleeping outside this range has been shown to reduce hours of sleep and quality of it (Marshall and Turner, 2016).
Think about it: if your room is too cold, your body has to expend energy to keep you warm, so you’ll be awake; on the other hand, if your room is too hot, your body has to focus on getting the excess heat out your body (e.g. sweating). Both these processes can only occur if we are, they cannot be performed whilst asleep. So it is critical to keep your room within this range to achieve the maximal benefits of sleep on your performance.
If you do not have air conditioning, I recommend you invest in some form of fan that doesn’t make too much noise, but not one that is too cheap (the noise from the fan could disturb your sleep). During winter, I recommend wearing the right garments or having adequate bed sheets/quilts to help you stay within the optimal range.
It might feel a bit different at first, and this might impact your sleep, but its effects will be minimal; and like training, the more you do something in similar conditions, the better you get at it. In no time you will be able to sleep fine and not have to worry about keeping your room within the designated range.
Hopefully these strategies are not too hard to follow, and I’ve given you enough explanation for why these work and impact our sleep. I have to admit that I am not concerned if you can’t work on all the strategies discussed at once. It’s good to work on one thing at a time and make it a habit before trying another strategy to help improve your sleep. I’d rather you work on improving on your sleep over time, compared to trying everything at once and giving up after a week or two.
Keep up the running team!
Caddick, Z. A., Gregory, K., Arsintescu, L., & Flynn-Evans, E. E. (2018). A review of the environmental parameters necessary for an optimal sleep environment. Building and environment, 132, 11-20.
Marshall, G. J., & Turner, A. N. (2016). The importance of sleep for athletic performance. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 61-67.
Harvard university (last updated 2020). Blue Light has a Dark Side [last accessed 14/07/2020]. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
Hatfield (last updated 2007). How to sleep like an Olympic Athlete [last accessed 14/07/2020]. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/sleep-like-an-olympian