In 22 ways to Become a Better Athlete, I talked briefly about the importance of sleep. Today, I want to expand on that subject and delve a little deeper into sleep, how it works and some simple strategies you can implement to improve your sleep quality.

Sleep is an anabolic state, during which the body replenishes its energy stores, regenerates tissues and produces proteins. In simple terms, sleep is important for recovery from training, nervous system readiness and general longevity. Studies have shown that even a week of curtailed sleep causes adverse effects on glucose uptake, meaning you are less able to refuel before, during and after training. So, for ensuring optimum performance and ability to train, sleep matters.

Stages of Sleep

Sleep can be broken into 2 phases

1. Orthodox sleep

2. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep

Much of our sleep is Orthodox. This is broken down further into 3 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stages:

NREM 1. This typically lasts around 10 minutes, is classed as light sleep and involves elements such as the relaxation of muscles.

NREM 2. This lasts around 20-30 mins and is the point when your eyes stop moving and your brain waves begin to slow down. However, you can still be easily woken during this stage.

NREM 3. Usually 30-40 minutes in duration, this is deep sleep stage and where important functions such as the release of human growth hormone (HGH) and the regenerative mechanisms vital for recovery take place. You are less likely to wake if another person walks into the room during this stage.

Once we have cycled through the NREM stages, we move into our REM phase. The brain is awake, but the body is asleep. You consolidate memories, ingrain skills and regenerate the brains nerve cells.

Sleep Cycles

A typical sleep cycle (orthodox sleep and REM sleep) lasts around 90 mins with time spent in NREM 3 decreasing and REM increasing as each cycle passes. To maximise the benefit of sleep it is recommended we get through at least 3-4 cycles of NREM 3. With our deepest sleep occurring between 10pm-2am, that means sleeping from 10pm-6am is better than midnight-8am for example.

How to Get a Good Nights Sleep

We’ve established that getting a good night’s sleep is important, especially when you’re training your body to achieve your athletic goals.In order to get that good night’s sleep there are an abundance of strategies we can use, including more complex ‘biohacking’ strategies. However, changing simple habits and implementing routines should be the first step before looking to advanced techniques and supplements.

We have an internal clock that essentially governs how our body works based on light and darkness. It helps support alertness during the day and helps us wind down during the evening. To keep our circadian rhythm in check we can:

- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, ideally within 1 hour variability. Yes that includes weekends!

- Get natural sunlight immediately after waking where possible.

Artificial light also known as blue light, which comes from our screens and mobile devices, can disrupt sleep by suppressing the release of melatonin (sleep hormone). This impacts on our circadian rhythm. As mentioned, our circadian rhythm works off natural light as well, meaning if the body experiences blue light too early it can disturb sleep. Simple strategies to overcome this include:

- Block out blue light at least 3 hours before bed. This means no screens! Certainly no screens in bed as a minimum. If you do have to use screens in the hours before bed, look at using night mode or apps such as F.LUX to minimise the emission of blue light.

- Try to sleep in complete darkness with the use of blackout blinds or eye masks.

The above should be your first steps to improving sleep duration and quality. There are other factors we can address that affect sleep quality such as caffeine, liquids and body temperature.

Caffeine can take quite some time for the effects to be cleared from the body, meaning these effects could be around up to 8 hours after consuming caffeine and thus effect sleep by disrupting circadian rhythm. One study found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bed reduced total sleep by 1 hour. Ideally you should aim to:

- Avoid caffeine 5-8 hours before going to bed or after midday for best results. If you’re dependant on coffee throughout the day to function, I’d argue you need to address that first.

Consuming liquids close to bedtime can result in disturbing sleep cycles to visit the toilet.

- Limit liquids 1-2 hours before bedtime.

Room temperature/body temperature can disrupt sleep patterns, especially as we enter the REM stage and our body temp naturally increases. The ideal sleeping temperature is 15-19°C. To help maintain that temperature:

- Avoid exercising too close to bedtime.

- Sleep naked (can also help with fat loss)

- Sleep with the windows open in the bedroom

- Use breathable duvets and pillows

- Use a cooling system such as the chilli pad -

I understand not all strategies are practical for everyone, however as we understand the importance of sleep on performance, recovery and huge implications on health, certain compromises may need to be made to get the best we can from our sleep. Implement one strategy at a time and ingrain it as habit before trying another to avoid overwhelming yourself.

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