Sleep is The Secret!
By Jason Fitzgerald
“I call them business meetings,” said pro marathoner Ryan Hall about his daily nap.
Hall is the fastest American marathoner and half-marathoner of all time and is so adamant about his regular rest that he insists it’s part of his job.
“Everyone else seems to call their afternoon shut-eye ‘naps.’ I call them ‘business meetings,’” Hall said. “On my easy days, I schedule two hours for these meetings. When you’re sleeping, your body absorbs all the hard work. It’s ironic: one of the best ways to get better is to do nothing.”
It’s true: when most elite runners are capable of just about the same training, the competitive advantage is often outside of running. Extra sleep – or in other words, extra recovery – may make the difference in how well you adapt to your training.
Yeah that’s great for the pros, but what does it mean for us recreational runners? Simple: the more you ask of your body, the more it needs to rest and recover. Learning how to sleep better could be the next big performance enhancer for you.
It’s also true for athletes in a variety of other sports. A Stanford study had their basketball team sleep 10 hours per night with almost immediate results: improved mood and higher energy, but more importantly faster sprint times and more accurate shooting! The researchers found comparable results for Stanford’s swimming, track, golf, football, and tennis teams.
Can you imagine how much more energized you would feel for every run if you were properly rested? Your mood would be better but you’d also see tangible performance benefits – just like the participants in that Stanford study.
Maybe you’d be more motivated to run more frequently, helping you gain more endurance.
Your training would ultimately be more productive, helping you gain speed (without doing any extra work!).
It’s likely you wouldn’t have as many aches, pains, and small niggles that always leave you wondering if you should run or not.
After your running annual review, you might find that sleep is the next piece of your training that needs an upgrade.
Here’s how you can do it.
Sleep 101: Daily Lifestyle Matters!
Ok, sleep is starting to sound like it could really help your running. I haven’t even covered everything yet: there’s also evidence that you’ll experience fewer overuse injuries if you sleep more! So get your sleep – and more injury advice here.
But how do we ensure that when the time comes for bed, we’re able to fall asleep? Many of us get in bed and lie there fully awake, unable to fall asleep. We wonder why we were so tired at 3pm but now at night we can barely shut our eyes.
Getting to sleep faster is something that you can start remedying during the day so you’re better prepared once the sun sets. Sometimes it’s what we do hours beforeyou fall asleep that really matters.
First, easy on the stimulants. Limit caffeine after 1-4pm depending on your tolerance and sensitivity. While some can have a shot of espresso and fall asleep an hour later, caffeine can make you sleep more restlessly, waking up more often than usual.
If you typically have a coffee in the afternoon, try replacing it with green or black tea. Both have less caffeine than coffee (green tea can have as little as 1/4 as much caffeine).
Exercise is a natural sleep aid and is a critical component to a good night’s rest. You’re probably a runner if you’re reading this so here’s even more incentive to go for a run most days of the week! If you run regularly, you can expect to fall asleep faster, improve the overall quality of your sleep, and sleep more overall.
Just be aware that running within 2-3 hours of going to sleep may affect your ability to fall asleep (especially if you run a hard or fast workout). Your central nervous system will still be “awake” and you’ll feel restless instead of tired.
Get your sunlight! If you work inside, you might be throwing your circadian rhythm off by avoiding sunlight during the day. Akin to living in a cave, not getting any sunlight alters your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
Direct sunlight impacts melatonin production and reminds your body that it’s supposed to be awake – and darkness reminds it that it’s bedtime. So go for a walk, get outside during your lunch hour, and enjoy the sunlight!
But if you need to go to sleep during the day (like if you work the night shift), avoid sunlight as much as possible and wear sunglasses outside.
How to Get to Sleep Faster
Now that you’ve taken steps to get yourself ready to fall asleep during the day, it’s important to make sure you can get to sleep as fast as possible once you turn the lights out. But most of us struggle with either sleep procrastination or taking too long to fall asleep.
Sleep procrastination is familiar to all of us: it’s when we say I’ll go to bed in fifteen minutes and then after an hour of watching cat videos on YouTube, reruns of Seinfeld, or reading that stupid Reddit threat we wonder why the hell we’re not in bed.
There’s nothing forcing us to stay awake, but we do it anyway. The “trick” to get yourself to go to bed when you intend to is to set an external reminder: a watch alarm or automatic timer that shuts off your TV both work well.
These work because you need an external notification to shock you out of that tired, groggy state of procrastination. If you don’t use a cue to snap yourself out of that state, you’ll keep watching those cat videos until midnight.
But what if you have no problem going to bed at the right time? Some of us get to bed on time but lie there, wondering why we can’t fall asleep. If you lie in bed struggling to sleep, don’t stay there. Sleep is a habit and the more often you associate your bed with not sleeping, the more frequent it will become.
5 More Tips to Sleep Better Tonight
With a third of American adults not getting enough sleep, it’s critical to get the best sleep possible. Let’s talk about actionable advice you can implement TONIGHT to start sleeping more soundly.
Do these 5 things and you’ll dramatically improve your quality of sleep and fall asleep faster:
Use blackout curtains in your bedroom that block all outside light from your windows. This alone will reduce the number of times you wake up early in the morning.
Block outside noise by using a noise machine. You can buy a separate one (common for infants) but I prefer to use an app like Simply Rain. If your partner can’t stand the extra noise, a pair of good ear plugs works too.
Set up a humidifier to add more moisture to the air in your bedroom. You’ll breathe easier and won’t get a parched mouth with higher humidity. This is much more important if you live in an arid environment or overuse heating or air conditioning.
Read a fiction book immediately before bed to clear your head and forget your to-do list. See what’s on my reading list here and shut your brain off at the end of the day.
Power down all screens at least 30 minutes before bed. No laptop, television, iPad, smart phone, etc. This is tough, but the blue light from the screens negatively affects your circadian rhythm and impacts melatonin production. If you must work on a computer or laptop at night, use a program that limits blue light like f.lux (free).
Remember that being a good runner is about much more than just running. These “sleep hacks” can all improve the quality of your sleep to better enhance your recovery.
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and a USA Track & Field certified coach. He’s the founder of Strength Running, where he helps runners race faster and prevent injuries. Sign up for his free e-course on how to run faster, plus a collection of free ebooks, workouts and coaching advice at http://strengthrunning.com.
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