I love to sleep. It is honestly one of my favorite activities. I have always prided myself in my ability to sleep. Two minutes after my head hits the pillow I’m out. That is of course … unless I’m feeling a bit excited or stressed, in which case I’m up all night.
If an athlete is not performing to his/her potential – I’m usually the first person to say, “Guess what – it’s not always mental.” When you are pushing your body to its max, you need to make sure you are including maximum recovery as well – and a big part of that recovery includes sleep.
The part of sleep that IS mental – is when you can’t sleep.
The trouble with sleep is that losing sleep leads to an increase in stress and an increase in stress leads to losing sleep. If the reason you can’t fall asleep is stress-related (or travel-related) and not because you had 2 cups of coffee after 7p and then went for a 5-mile run at 8:30p, then here are the 6 most important things you can do to increase your snooze time:
1. Don’t freak out
Don’t freak out when you can’t sleep. It’s not the end of the world. Feeling like it’s the end of the world is the thing that keeps you tossing and turning and praying your alarm isn’t about to go off any second. Because I love to sleep so much (and I am not a morning person), the other thing that will keep me tossing and turning at night is when I know I have to get up early and I am going to bed later than I would like. Tell yourself it’s OK if you don’t get a good night’s sleep.
2. Power down
It’s time to set some boundaries with your digital life, (believe me – I’m talking to myself here as well). Using technology before bed has been linked to an increase in stress. Take baby steps and try to power down a little bit earlier before bed until you can get it to at least 1 hour before (ideally it should be 2). If you absolutely must watch something before bed – then make it something funny. A study done at University of Irvine showed that watching a funny video significantly dropped stress hormones and increased the growth hormone by 87%.
This goes both for your bedroom and your brain. Having a lot of things around you (or having a lot of thoughts swimming around inside your head) can be over-stimulating, leading you to feel overwhelmed and feel more anxious in general. If you’re having trouble sleeping try doing some housekeeping for your bedroom and your brain. Keep a notebook outside your bedroom door and before you go to bed, write down all of the things are your mind. Allow yourself to leave them right there in that notebook outside of your bedroom door and know that they will be there and you can address them the next day. Only do this if your mind is swimming with thoughts If you’re feeling relaxed – you might not need this step and you can just make sure your room is a little more tidy and pick up 3-5 pieces of clutter before bed.
4. Try progressive relaxation
In the early 1900’s, Dr. Edmund Jacobsen believed that “an anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body” and so developed the relaxation technique that is still the foundation of many stress-reducing relaxation techniques today. Progressive relaxation is the act of systematically tensing and relaxing all of the major muscle groups throughout your body to help you physically relaxed. Jacobsen believed that if you could physically relax, mental relaxation would follow. When done regularly it can help reduce blood pressure, muscle tension, anxiety, and insomnia. Try this passive relaxation exercise to start (passive means you just relax the muscles without tensing them). ON the link – look under Chapter 4 from my book On Top of Your Game.
5. Try lavender
Research has shown that lavender aromatherapy can reduce heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and produce a calming effect on the central nervous system. Additional research has shown that lavender can increase slow-wave sleep (deep sleep), which is the stage when the blood supply to the muscles will increase and tissue growth and repair will occur. You can use a diffuser, get some lavender spray for your sheets and pillow, or even just have a little bottle of the essential oil next to your bed. Whatever your method, start smelling lavender as part of your bed-time routine.
6. Learn how to nap
It’s not just for kids, it doesn’t mean you’re being lazy, and it’s not a luxury. In fact, one recent study on collegiate basketball players who bumped up their average sleep from 6.5 hours to 8.5 over the course of two-weeks increased their 3-point average by 13.7%, their free-throw average by 11.4%, and ALL of them were faster in their sprint drills. Take a short nap (no longer than 25 minutes) or go for a full sleep cycle (90 minutes) so you don’t wake up in your deep sleep cycle and end up feeling worse. There is even a stress-reducing benefit to setting your alarm for 10 minutes and lying down with your eyes closed – even if you don’t sleep – so no more “I’m not good at napping” excuses.
If you want to train and compete like an Olympic athlete, you’re going to have to learn how to sleep like one. This is one thing that elite athletes understand and embrace more than the rest of us. Sleep is the time that your body repairs itself. If you want all of those hard workouts and miles to really count – you better give yourself the recovery you need to balance it out.