Sleep 101

Sleep

Is sleep the final piece of your training puzzle?

Several months ago, I posted a blog called “The 3 Pillars of Training.”

For those of you who aren’t interested in reading the entire post, let me summarize: The 3 key components of seeing progress, regardless of your goals, are training, nutrition and recovery.

Obviously, more than a few people are talking about training on “teh Interwebz” these days.  And of the course, over the past decade, nutrition is getting more and more coverage as well.

The question I have is this: Why aren’t we talking about recovery?

And along those same lines, why aren’t we talking more about sleep?

Regardless of whether your goal in training is fat loss, building muscle, getting stronger, or dominating kids in the athletic arena, enhancing the quality and quantity of your sleep can provide huge dividends.

Let’s examine the key components of getting a good night’s sleep.

Developing a Routine

The first step to getting more rest is developing a routine.  Just like you have a routine when you get ready to head to work or school in the morning, you need a routine to ensure that you optimize your sleep each and every night.

Here are a random collection of tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years to develop my own routine:

  • Take a shower or bath before bed. While I’m sure some of you are averse to showering twice per day, this second cleansing not only warms up your body and tissues, but also can help you relax.  It also leads seamlessly into the next step.

  • Do some static stretching.While I’m sure I’ll get lambasted for this one, I still feel there’s a role for static stretching in most people’s programs.  The key is stretching the appropriate muscle groups; specifically, the ones that are almost always chronically short and/or stiff.  The major players to include here are the hip flexors (especially rectus femoris and TFL), the pecs, the lats, etc.

  • Find something quality to read and read it!Reading is another step in the process that allows us to relax.  I find that the longer I read, the better I sleep.

    The argument then becomes, what do you read?  Tim Ferriss of the 4-Hour Work Week would recommend fiction.  Unfortunately, this is one of the only times I can’t agree with Tim, and I’m fully ready to admit it may just be me.

    The few times I’ve tried to read fiction prior to bed, next thing I know it’s 2 or 3 in the morning and I’m still reading.  If it’s good fiction, it’s generally hard to put down!

    In contrast, I prefer something within my trade immediately before bed.  If you opt for personal development and/or fiction, do that for 15-30 minutes early on, and then finish off with something a little less engaging.

  • Minimize caffeine and booze.Many experts would recommend minimizing caffeine after 2 pm, and I’d whole-heartedly agree. According to IFAST intern extraordinaire Eric Oetter, caffeine has a 9-hour half life, so a better recommendation might be to ingest caffeine no later than 9 hours before you hit the sack.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, while booze might make it easier to fall asleep (think back to college for a moment here), it’s generally not conducive to deep, restful sleep.

  • Get rid of the technology!Let me begin by admitting this is one tip that I’ve had issues with in the past myself.

    Put away your iPhone, PDA, laptop, TV, etc. and actually do the other things that I’ve recommended.  Constantly staying “plugged in” is a sure-fire way that your brain stays engaged and turned on, when you should be relaxing.

    If need be, consider placing your electronic devices somewhere else in your house entirely if they become an issue. I can tell you from experience there’s nothing worse than getting an angry or important e-mail right before bed!

  • Perform the “brain dump.”I actually heard the term “brain dump” several years ago in an interview between Nate Green and Bill Hartman.  The concept is simple: When you have a bunch of ideas bouncing around in your head, it’s very difficult to relax.

    Instead, either immediately before bed or as part of your winding-down ritual, perform a brain dump where you get everything out of your head.  This could be e-mails you have to type, calls you need to make, creative ideas, etc.

    You can write them down, e-mail them to yourself, whatever.  Just get those ideas out of your head ASAP!  You’ll not only be more organized, but your brain will actually help you sort this info out as you sleep, helping you become more productive.

  • Go to bed and wake-up at the same time daily. This one isn’t earth shattering, but how many of you actually do it?  When you get-up at 8 am one day, 5 am the next, and maybe 11 am on weekends, your body has no clue what’s going on.

    Try and go to bed and wake-up at the same time everyday.  Getting in a routine will help dial your body in and maximize the benefits of your sleep.

Optimizing the Environment

Now that you’ve created a bedtime ritual, it’s time to really dial in your sleeping environment.

  • Find a comfortable temperature to sleep in.

There’s nothing worse than trying to sleep in an environment that’s either too hot or too cold.  I can’t tell you what exactly works for you, but chances are you already know about the right temperature for you to sleep in.

When in doubt, I can tell you this – it’s better to sleep in a room that’s more on the cool side than on the hot side.  If you’ve ever been buried in the covers during the winter months with no desire to come out, you probably have a good idea of what I’m talking about!

  • Luke…Come to the dark side.This one is simple:  Get your sleeping environment as dark as possible.  No TV’s on in the background, bright clocks, night-lights, etc.  The darker your room, the easier it will be for you to fall, and more importantly stay asleep.  It may be helpful to invest in some seriously dark window treatments* to help keep the rays out early in the AM as well.

    *Who says a meathead can’t be sophisticated?  I just worked the term “window treatments” into my blog.  GET IT!!!

  • Use some “white noise.”“White noise” is another simple tool to help you get, and stay, asleep longer.  Good choices here are a fan, sounds from a sleep machine, etc.  Not too much to say on this one.
  • Clean sheetsIt may sound a little corny, but you know how good clean sheets feel?  Yeah, me too.  Wash your sheets from time-to-time – you’ll thank me!

Improving Sleep while Traveling

If you guys are anything like me, you travel from time-to-time.  The problem is, you never know what you’re getting into every time you travel!  Some hotels are quiet, dark, and relaxing.  Others, it’s like the Frat Party from Animal House is on your level each and every night!

You can’t necessarily choose your neighbors, but here are a few tips that have worked well for me in the past.

  • Get it Dark!Just like before, the darker the better.  When I first get to a hotel I do my best to check out the blinds and see if I can fully cover the windows.

    Another tip that works well is placing a towel under the door.  It may sound insignificant, but the amount of light that comes in from under your door can seriously influence your sleep.

  • White noiseWhite noise shows up on the list again here.  Obviously, if your room has a fan either on the ceiling or in the bathroom, that’s a definite bonus.

    No fans?  No problem!  If you have an iPhone check out the “White Noise” app.  When I was staying at the hotel for the RKC in 2009, this was a lifesaver.  You can choose from tons of different sounds, including rainfall, thunderstorms, and even an oscillating fan!

  • Stick with the routine whenever possible!Obviously sticking with your routine can be challenging when you’re on the road, but the closer you stick to your routine regardless of travel, time changes, etc., can go a long way to feeling great and enjoying your travel that much more.

Advanced Techniques

So we’ve covered your pre-sleep routine, how to set-up your environment to catch maximal snoozes, and even some tips for better sleeping while travel.  All we have left to cover is a few advanced techniques that some of you may be interested in.

The following techniques are things I used much more frequently when I was competing in sports, especially when I was competing heavily in powerlifting.  For those of you who are competitive or who take your training very seriously, I can’t recommend these highly enough.

  • Progressive relaxation Progressive relaxation is a very simple technique that I find works great for minimizing muscle tension and enhancing relaxation.

    Lie on your back, and starting with your feet, progressively contract and relax individual muscle groups.  For instance, start with the following:

    • Flex your feet for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
    • Plantarflex your ankle for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
    • Dorsiflex your ankle for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
    • Flex your quads for 5 seconds, and then relax for 5 seconds.
    • Continue this pattern throughout all the major muscle groups, making sure to emphasize the muscles of the face and hands (to areas where we store a lot of tension).
  • Deep, diaphragmatic breathingDiaphragmatic breathing is a critical component of movement and life.  For a great primer on diaphragmatic breathing, be sure to check out this blog post by Patrick Ward.

    Following your progressive relaxation, place one hand on your belly and the opposite hand on your chest.  Take in a full deep breath through your nose, and try to make sure that the hand on your belly moves faster and higher than the hand on your chest.

    I will typically do this for 5 repetitions, with each inhalation and exhalation taking about 10 seconds.

    • Visualization

      The final step in our puzzle is visualization.  Every great athlete/performer likely does visualization in some sense, so the following is simply my interpretation of how I use visualization.I remember reading an article by bodybuilder Robbie Robinson back in the day about dead lifting, and he mentioned that his deadlifting workout started the day before he trained.  That’s how serious he took visualization in his training process.

      If I’m preparing for a squat workout, I would think about every aspect of said workout: What I’m going to wear, the drive to the gym, my warm-up process, how the bar feels in my hands and on my back, how I set-up, perform the repetitions, etc.

      The more realistic and detailed you can make your visualization, the better it will help you in the long-run.

    • “Corrective” sleeping Normally, I love to explain in depth why I do things the way I do.  This is the exception to the rule – you’ll have to take my word for this one!

      If you sleep on your left side (right hip is towards the ceiling) sleep with a small pillow in between your knees and your knees/hips flexed.

      If you sleep on your right side (left hip is towards the ceiling), sleep with a small pillow in between your ankles and your knees/hips flexed.

      If you want more information on the “Why” behind these recommendations, check out the homosapiens over at the Postural Restoration Institute (yes, that’s an inside joke – watch the DVD’s or attend a course and you’ll see what I mean.)

    Summary

    I’m sure you’re impressed that I just wrote over 2000 words on the topic of sleep, but it really is that important.  I sincerely hope you’ll try out some of these techniques to aid in taking your sleep to the next level.

    However, I’m sure I forgot something along the way.  Anything you guys would like to add?  If so, be sure to leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below!

    Stay strong

    Mike

    • Charlotte Loa

      Good post Mike!! Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day is a good way to get things done (aka not sleep walking through-out the day).
      Also, visualization right before going to bed is powerful! It really does something to your subconscious. Even do it in the morning when getting out of bed. That way you'll never lose focus on your goals.

    • Mike Reinold

      Great article Mike, love the topic and couldn't agree more about the importance of sleep and recovery.
      To add to you thought on the shades from a hotel room, a little trick we use in baseball (crazy travel, frequent change in time zones etc) is to grab the hanger from the closet with the two clips and clip the two halves of the window blinds closed. Presto, no crack of sunlight in your face at 6:00 AM!
      Best,
      Mike Reinold

    • Mario

      How about mattresses? Any advice for picking out a mattress or neck pillow?

    • Luke

      Thanks for the awesome article! I will definately try to get the routine down.
      It would be nice, if you could help me with the following questions about sleep:
      – What position of sleep would you prefer? On your Side, Back or Front?
      – What kind of bed/mattress would be best?
      – If you could choose: Would you prefer only one full night’s sleep, or additionally 1-2 PowerNaps
      throughout the day?
      – If you have one or more nights with no/only a little bit of sleep: Would you try to sleep longer than
      your usual routine for a couple of nights, or just continue with the normal sleeping times?
      – About Reading/No Technology: Would it be okay to read articles on a smartphone or would it be
      better to just print them out?


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