Getting good quality sleep is critical if you want to perform your best. Some people fall asleep the minute their head hits the pillow and awake to the sound of their alarm. Others struggle to fall asleep or toss and turn all night long.
Sleep problems can be frustrating to deal with and challenging to solve. Sleep specialist Dr. Winter told us poor quality sleep could reduce your endurance performance by 5-25%. Keep reading to learn how to improve your sleep and your fitness.
Phases Of Sleep
We will talk about the three phases of sleep throughout this article, so I'll list them here. During the night, good sleepers cycle through the following phases of sleep.
- Light Sleep
- Deep Sleep
- Dream Sleep
For the purpose of this article, it's important to know that deep sleep is when your body recovers the most.
Sleep Quantity And Quality
Sleep quantity is how much time you spend sleeping every night. This is not to be confused with how much time you spend in bed. If you are in bed for eight hours but lie awake for two hours before falling asleep, your sleep quantity would be six hours.
Sleep quality is a measure of how well you sleep. Good sleepers cycle through the three phases of sleep. Poor sleepers who wake up throughout the night could interrupt or miss essential phases of sleep. Losing too much deep sleep can be problematic.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
The simple answer is enough. Everyone is different, so don't fixate on the common-heard eight-hour rule.
Dr. Winter suggests starting with eight hours of sleep and adjusting from there. If after eight hours of sleep you find yourself falling asleep at work, you need more sleep. Conversely, if you wake up after 7 hours of sleep and feel completely rested, there is no reason to stay in bed for an additional hour.
Tip For Sleeping Better
Create An Inviting Sleep Environment
Make your bedroom somewhere you look forward to going. Buy soft pillows and comfortable sheets. Install calm lighting, play relaxing music, or light candles.
Problematic sleepers often dread the idea of going to bed. Giving your bedroom a little TLC could help you relax and improve your mindset about sleep.
Keep a Consistent Schedule
Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that cycles your body through a sleep-wake cycle. In short, this rhythm is why you are tired at night, and awake in the morning.
As you sleep, your sleep rhythm cycles you through the different phases of sleep. If you have a consistent sleep schedule, your body develops strong circadian and sleep rhythms.
Your sleep rhythm also operates on a 24-hour clock. If you typically go to bed at 10:00 pm, your body starts its sleep cycle at that time. If one night you go to bed at 2:00 am, your body can miss the sleep cycles that typically happen between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am.
As an endurance athlete, it's important to know that you get the majority of deep sleep during the first half of the night. If your inconsistent bedtime is causing your body to skip over most of your deep sleep, you could be setting yourself up for disaster.
Trouble Falling Asleep
Having a consistent sleep schedule will also help you fall asleep easier. A strong circadian rhythm will ensure you are tired when you crawl into bed.
It's also important to note that you should only go to bed when you are tired. Going to bed when you aren't tired is the equivalent of going to a restaurant two hours before you are hungry. If doesn't make sense to to eat when you're not hungry, why try to sleep if you're not tired?
Leave Time For Decompression
You wouldn't go directly from an all-you-can-eat buffet to a high-intensity workout, so don't go from a busy day directly to bed. Your brain needs time to slow down and unwind before sleep. Set aside time to read, watch television, listen to music or meditate before bed.
If you've had trouble sleeping in the past, you can become anxious at the thought of going to bed. The more anxious you become about sleeping, the harder it is to sleep. This cycle can quickly spiral out of control.
Dr. Winter says it's completely normal to have a bad night of sleep. Learning to worry less about your sleep typically results in better sleep. If you have a bad night of sleep, accept it and move on. Stressing out about it won't do you any good.
If you find yourself awake at 3:00 am, that's ok too. Accept the fact that you are awake and try not to let it bother you. Try instead to enjoy the fact you resting in a comfortable bed.
Finally, if you do spend most of the night awake, focus on resting. Dr. Winter said resting has nearly all of the same benefits of sleep. A night of rest shouldn't put you that far behind.
Is It Ok To Nap?
If your child has a snack after school but consistently can't eat their dinner, you'd probably cut out the snack. Napping is like a sleep snack. If your daytime nap prevents you from sleeping well at night, drop it. But, if napping throughout the day helps you feel energized and does not affect your nighttime sleep, nap away.
If after following all of this advice you are still having trouble sleeping, you may have a more significant sleep problem. There are plenty of diagnosable sleep problems like sleep apnea, but they are beyond the scope of this article, and my level of expertise.
If you think you have a real sleep problem Dr. Winter highly recommends seeing a sleep specialist. Many people live with sleep problems for years and have no idea how much of an effect it is having on their health and quality of life.
If you want more information on sleep, we highly recommend Dr. Winter's book The Sleep Solution: Why You Can't Sleep and How to Fix It. It's a great book and very well written. If you think you need to see a sleep specialist, check out Dr. Winter's website.