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Five things that will optimize your recovery and performance for free

By Ellen Stothard, Ph.D.

Optimizing your sleep habits can help you crush your training goals. How did you sleep last night?

As athletes and coaches, we're always on the lookout for the next advancement that can eke out that extra 1% improvement in performance. What if I told you that there is a treatment that increases speed and endurance, improves mental acuity and reaction time and even decreases inflammation and accelerates recovery? It’s also safe, all-natural and you already have access to it every night (hopefully).

Sleep is the original performance enhancer and by some estimates can improve performance by 5-8% when optimized. It also supercharges all other aspects of training and recovery and many scientists are advocating that it be added as the fourth pillar of health. Sleep can not only help boost training but creating good sleep habits before leaving for a race or an expedition can create the opportunity for success when trying to catch some shut-eye in a less than optimal setting.

Here are 5 sleep principals that athletes and coaches can use to harness the power of healthy sleep.

Consistency is Key

Many people talk about sleep as an independent entity and forget that the sleep process is regulated by a biological timing system called the circadian rhythm. This process is absolutely essential for keeping you awake in the face of increasing sleep pressure brought on by wakefulness throughout the day, which is called the homeostatic drive for sleep. The circadian system keeps time internally and coordinates a whole host of processes to use energy and resources efficiently and at the proper time. This system keeps you awake throughout the day and then steps off the gas pedal to allow you to fall asleep in the evening. The circadian system is independent but also responds to signals from the outside world, especially light. Keeping a consistent bed and wake time, even on weekends, will keep timing signals consistent and allow the sleep and circadian processes to work together to appropriately time the processes that help you fall asleep.

Both quality and quantity matter

Not surprisingly, there’s a major difference between 8 hours of sleep in a tent in the winter at 15,000 ft and 8 hours sleep in a warm bed at home. In general, sleeping in a non-ideal environment will cause more disruption and awakenings during the night, decreasing the body’s ability to get into deep, restorative stages of sleep. The same can be said for getting too little sleep. For example, not sleeping enough decreases the amount of time in all sleep stages, subsequently decreasing the time for recovery processes to occur. Throughout the night, restoration occurs while you sleep to get rid of the sleep pressure that you have built up throughout the day. We also consolidate memories and provide recovery functions to muscles and bones that are depleted. All these processes take time and while it is recommended that normal adults get 6-8 hours per night, elite athletes may need more than 10 hours of consolidated nightly sleep to allow for sufficient recovery.

Spending time to wind-down after a long day puts a buffer between the demands of the day and the sleeping environment. Here, Coach George Bieker winds down (as best he can) after a day of alpine climbing.

Create a wind-down routine

Have you ever trained late in the day and then immediately tried to go to bed only to find that you can’t rid your mind of racing thoughts? Athletes have a substantial mental load and are often so busy throughout the day that they are unable to process anything until they stop moving when they are trying to sleep. Creating a wind-down routine puts a buffer between the demands of the day, training, or life and the sleeping environment. Just as stretching warms the body up to perform, a wind-down routine signals to the brain and body that it is time to relax and prepare for sleep. A wind-down routine should last between 5-20 minutes at a minimum and can consist of activities that are non-stimulating, such as breathing or mindfulness exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, stretching, or reading a non-stimulating book or magazine. Using this routine consistently will train the body to associate it with relaxation and preparation for sleep, especially when traveling and sleeping in a new environment.

Use light to your advantage

As previously mentioned, the circadian timing system takes in signals from the environment to coordinate the timing of sleep and other processes. The strongest signal that impacts the circadian system is light. Getting bright light in the morning, especially from the sun, tells the circadian system that it is daytime and it should stop producing the sleep hormone, melatonin. Conversely, dimming or turning off lights (and screens such as phone, computer, tablet, TV) at night takes away this signal and tells the body that it is nighttime and to behave accordingly by producing the hormone melatonin. Bright light exposure too close to bedtime can delay the production of melatonin and decrease the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep to get enough good quality sleep each night. Blue light waves also inhibit or delay the release of melatonin, so turning on your devices “night mode” and dimming your screen should be a nightly routine.

Plan strategic naps

Sometimes it is difficult to get enough sleep at night, especially when traveling or preparing for competition. Taking a nap can decrease sleep pressure and facilitate recovery as a supplement to sleep at night. Naps can either be a short 20 min nap or a longer 45 or 90 min nap and should be taken in the early afternoon. Taking naps longer than 90 min or napping in the late afternoon or evening can interfere with the ability to fall asleep by reducing sleep pressure too much. Using naps strategically, especially on the day of a competition can give a competitive edge by decreasing sleep pressure and improving performance.

To summarize, there are many simple changes that you can make to your daily routine that can help optimize the quality and quantity of your sleep. We will continue to discuss additional ways to optimize recovery in the coming months, so stay tuned to learn more about how you can improve your performance through healthy sleep and recovery habits.

About the author

Ellen Stothard Ph.D. is the Research and Development Director at the Colorado Sleep Institute and her work focuses on leveraging the power of good sleep to improve health and performance. When she isn't talking about sleep, you can find her out running on her local trails near Boulder, Colorado.

Find her on twitter @erstothard

Summation Athletics LLC

Hilo, HI

Bellingham, WA


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