Rethinking Sleep and Recovery - Eighteen Forty Four
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Rethinking Sleep and Recovery

As an elite ultracyclist doing crazy things like Race Across America (RAAM), one of my biggest challenges was that of sleep restriction. Ultra-racing involves overcoming our physiological drive to sleep and you need to balance the potentially damaging effects to your health if you get it wrong with the need to make progress.

To help with this, I approached Nick Littlehales. Nick is an elite sports sleep coach who has worked with Team GB, Team Sky and many other teams and athletes globally (including some of the aforementioned yachtspeople). My initial focus when I approached him was all about guidance for the races themselves – what sleep strategy should I use? How should I use caffeine? How could I train myself to deal with minimal sleep?

Nick’s approach however, was both broader and deeper. He encouraged me to take a much more holistic approach to the whole concept of Recovery as part of everyday life, rather than just for training and racing. Building the right habits day-to-day would help both me and my crew to arrive on the start line refreshed and able to perform at our best.

Whilst it was ultra cycling that initially got me focusing on sleep, it was my studies in the field of resilience which has brought it to the forefront of my coaching. Sleep is essential for both our mental and physical wellbeing, but it is something that often gets pushed to one side in our adult lives; there’s always more important or exciting things to do. Being able to get by on a few hours sleep is seen as a badge of honour and going to bed early is boring.

There is powerful research supporting our need for sleep and the detrimental effect it can have on us if we don’t get enough of it. I’d recommend “Why We Sleep” by Dr Matt Walker PhD for more insight; his TED Interview here is an excellent summary.

So how can you get more (and better) sleep?

1) Prioritise sleep
Sleep is not a luxury, it’s a biological imperative. Give it the priority that it deserves and look to get 7-9 hours consistently each night. Build your schedule around sleep, rather than squeezing it out.

2) Go to bed and get up at the same time each day
The body functions best when our wake up time and sleep time is kept as constant as possible; this means not giving in to the temptation of trying to catch up on sleep at weekends by having a lie in. Although it might help us to feel better in the short term, it’s disruptive to our long term sleep pattern.

3) Think about your sleep environment
Make your bedroom conducive to sleep:

  • Keep tech out of it – televisions, tablets and phones all emit blue light and wake us up rather than settle us down
  • Think about your curtains – do they create sufficient darkness?
  • What about temperature (slightly cooler than you might want just for sitting around in).
  • Check your pillows and your mattress are giving you the appropriate level of support.

4) Avoid caffeine and alcohol
Caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours, so should be avoided in the afternoon. Alcohol is also a stimulant – although too much initially makes you feel sleepy, it will affect sleep quality even in quantities that you don’t necessary think are having much of an effect on you whilst you are awake.

5) Prepare for sleep
Preparation for sleep should begin about 90 minutes before you are planning to go to sleep and during this time everything should be focused on winding down. This includes avoiding television, computers and mobile phones; as well as often being stimulating through their content, these devices emit blue light which is also stimulating for our brains.

Try having a shower or a bath to get your body temperature ready for bed (we need it to drop, which this will encourage) and engage in relaxing activities like reading or meditation.

By taking this time to literally power down your brain, you will get to sleep much faster and sleep more deeply. Keep a notebook by your bed to allow you jot down any thoughts or things you need to do in the morning so you can get them out of your head.

6) Get into a morning routine
Plan time for a morning routine to allow your body and brain to come back on line in the morning. This means getting up rather than snoozing and then doing some gentle movement and brain activity rather than launching straight into the day.

It’s not something that’s mentioned in polite company, but bowels take a while to come on line too and allowing time for breakfast and a hot drink to stimulate action in that department will ensure you start the day more comfortable and able to focus. If not, this can upset their routine for the rest of the day leading to constipation and bloating.

7) Get enough exercise

Exercise has many beneficial effects on both our mental and physical health. It can also help us to sleep better by getting the blood flowing and helping us to feel tired. Wherever possible, avoid doing strenuous exercise too close to bed time – allow both your body and your mind to cool down and calm down.

8) Consider a nap
Naps are an integral part of an holistic approach to recovery and are not a sign of weakness or being lazy. A nap of up to 25min will give you a real benefit; it allows your brain to power down and go through a little recovery phase of its own.

Sit down, turn off distractions, close your eyes and switch off. You may nod off (possibly just for a few seconds) but even if you don’t it will still be of real benefit to both physical and mental health. The best times to nap for our circadian rhythm are 1300-1500 and 1700-1900. Listen to your body – if you need to nap a lot, make sure you are getting enough sleep at night.

The one caveat to this is that naps should be avoided if you are struggling to sleep at night as they will then start to interfere with your natural rhythms. Focus on night time sleep first, and add naps if needed to recharge.

9) Create a culture for recovery
This applies to both family and work environments:

  • Talk about recovery habits with your partner or spouse – what little things can you change to ensure you are better rested and able to be more productive and happier?
  • What habits do you want your children to get into?
  • At work, think about how you can create the right culture within your team. Encourage screen breaks and people taking down-time at lunch.

10) If you can’t sleep…
In the short term, don’t panic! If sleep isn’t coming, try getting up and doing something relaxing (e.g.reading or meditating) out of the bedroom – the bedroom needs to stay a place where you sleep, rather than where you worry about sleep. Try to return to bed when you’re feeling sleepy.

If sleep continues to be a challenge, look at your sleep hygiene (the factors above) and see what changes you can make. Avoid sleep tablets and if necessary, seek support; focus on resolving the problem rather than becoming anxious about it. Whilst sleep is important, we all have times when it eludes us (and for new parents, this can seem like a lifetime!) Be curious about the challenge and be kind to yourself.

Sleep and recovery are cornerstones for our physical and mental wellbeing; are you giving them the priority they deserve? What changes do you need to make?