7 Hacks to Sleep Better

All of the workouts in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t recover from them. Two of the things that have the most impact on how well you do or don’t recover from your training is your diet and your sleep.

Because eating food seems like a more complicated activity and involves more variables and more decisions, I think that many people spend more time analyzing, monitoring, or planning their dietary strategies. It’s incredibly important for our health and our success as athletes. But, it would be a big mistake to assume that your sleep is something that happens naturally and automatically. If we never pay attention to our sleep environment and sleep habits, then we may miss out on a big opportunity to enhance our physical performance as well as our mental and emotional well being.

Things that benefit our physical performance often also have a significant positive impact on our mental and emotional health and performance as well. This is definitely true of sleep. Aside from allowing you to get the most out of your body, it also enhances your ability to learn, be creative, form memories, be healthier, happier, and live longer. No matter how you look at it, getting enough quality sleep is very important.

How can we get better sleep?

  • Go to bed at a regular time.
  • Avoid white and blue light the last few hours before bed. Use dim, warm colored lights instead.
  • Get apps for your phone and computer like twilight and f.lux to dim the screen and remove blue light at certain hours.
  • Make your sleep environment dark.
  • Use light to wake up if you can.
  • Use light in the winter to reduce symptoms of SAD.
  • Avoid caffeine after the early afternoon.

 

Regular sleep times.

Our body’s circadian rhythms are established by our sleeping and waking cycles and our exposure to blue and broad-spectrum light (e.g. sunlight). Throughout history, our daily rhythms have been mostly determined by exposure to sunlight. When it’s light out, our bodies understand that we should probably be awake. When the sky turns red and then dark, our bodies produce melatonin, we get sleepy, and we sleep, releasing high amounts of growth hormone and allowing our bodies and our brains to recover from the waking hours. Around the time that it gets light outside, our bodies get exposed to more and more light, melatonin goes down, cortisol levels go up, and we become alert and ready for a new day.

In the past, this whole cycle was pretty easy to maintain for the most part. Now that we have nearly infinite access to electricity, lights, and computerized devices with screens, this whole system gets disrupted. Our bodies get mixed signals, and our circadian rhythms are not as clearly defined or as strong… We may not get as much quality sleep, we may have less growth hormone around when we sleep, and we may have elevated cortisol levels.

To combat this, try to have a consistent time that you wind down, avoid blue and white light, and eventually go to sleep. This doesn’t have to be an exact time, but it should be a narrow window of time. Likewise, if you can wake up consistently in a specific window of time, your body will know what it needs to do throughout the day, and it will be able to do it better. No matter how much sleep you get, it will be better if it’s always at the same time.

Avoid white and blue light the last few hours before bed. Use dim, warm colored lights instead.

If we sleep at the same time every day, but we are looking at our phone or computer right before bed, it will reduce melatonin levels. With low melatonin levels we may not fall asleep as quickly, but much more importantly, our growth hormone production will be reduced and our sleep quality will suffer. Avoid blue light by getting apps on all of your devices or avoid them altogether in the last 1-2h before bed. Also, avoid bright white lights in your home. Go for softer, warmer lights. Get a dimmable salt-lamp for your bedroom.

Make your sleep environment dark.

We may turn out our lights, but if there is light coming through the window or bedroom door, then you may not be sleeping as deeply as if it was pitch black or close to it. Do what you can to get your room as dark, and quiet, as possible while you sleep. Most of us have street lights or other things outside of our windows, so consider getting blackout curtains to really lock down your room.

Use light to wake up if you can.

If you can leave your window open and get sunlight in the morning, then great! If you cannot use sunlight to wake up, because it’s really foggy where you live, or the sun doesn’t rise around the time that you intend to wake up, then consider a light alarm. I have a light alarm that I’ve used for several years now and I love it. It gets slowly lighter over a half-hour. I have the option to have an audible alarm at the end of the 30m. I have it set to a quiet sound of birds chirpping. It is much less abrasive than using the alarm on your phone. You wake up more slowly and it gives your brain a chance to awaken at a lighter moment in your sleep cycles. Again, if this happens at the same time every day, then you may not even need an alarm after a while. At the very least, your brain will be trained to awake at the preferred time.

Use light in the winter to reduce symptoms of SAD.

Sleeping at specific times can help a lot in establishing a good circadian rhythm. But, without exposure to bright, broad-spectrum light (including blue light), the rhythm is not as strong. You may not have as much energy during the day if you never get any sunlight. If you don’t get any morning light, then your body tends is not getting the strong signal that it’s daytime at the time that it is most receptive to that message.

Many athletes train in the morning and get enough sunlight exposure early in the day. But, many people who train indoors, who live in cloudy climates, or are training in the winter time may not get enough bright light in their life. Or they may only get it intermittently at different times throughout the day. This isn’t great for your sleep, but can also result in seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is basically a mood pathology of mild to moderate depression that usually occurs seasonally in the winter when there are fewer daylight hours and it is less bright when the sun is out.

For anyone who has trouble with SAD, or any form of depression, getting outside and getting some exercise during daylight hours is by far the best first-line treatment. Exercise and time outside is safe and statistically much more effective than any other treatment. Some people need more than that! But, do everything that you can to exercise and get outside every day! In addition to that, getting a therapy light box can be very helpful. There are a lot of good options for lights that put out bright, broad spectrum light (similar to sunlight). Use it in the morning for 30-60m to create a strong signal for your body that it’s daytime… Light therapy can reduce symptoms of SAD and reinforce a regular circadian rhythm. It can be great for your mental health and your physical performance… Good sleep is a key ingredient for physical and mental performance!

Avoid caffeine after the early afternoon.

Coffee is great! Green tea is great! They’re good for you and there’s good research to suggest that they can reduce your risk of certain cancers, improve cognitive function, and the caffeine content may enhance performance slightly, whether mental or physical. Not everyone drinks coffee or tea, but coffee specifically is a pretty integral part of cycling culture.

If you do drink coffee or tea, or take caffeine in any form, try to take it only in the morning or midday hours. Stop taking caffeine of any kind after the early afternoon, say 2 or 3pm. Having caffeine even 5 or 6 hours before bed can diminish sleep quality. Go for something else or make a cup of decaf coffee.

 

Even if you sleep pretty well, consider whether there are any small things that you can do to adjust the timing, duration, or quality of your sleep. You may be able to get more out of it. Many of the small things we do have huge impacts over time, so don’t underestimate the results that you may experience with even one or two small changes to your routine. You could find yourself thinking more clearly, feeling better about life, and performing better when you train and race.

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Meditation and Visualization Can Enhance Performance

There’s a lot of evidence indicating that meditation and visualization practices can enhance our experience of life and our performance, whether mental, physical, emotional, or skilled. Meditation can improve focus, pain and stress tolerance, sleep, immune function, blood pressure, creativity, critical thinking, etc. Many top performing athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, world leaders, and people of all sorts regularly engage in a deliberate mindfulness practice.

A few main points:

  • Exercise itself can be a mindful practice. It can be one of the simplest and most effective mindfulness practices that there is. Just exercise and pay close attention to what you’re doing and how you’re feeling while you’re doing it. Allow the physical movements and exertion to consume your attention, and don’t try to distract yourself by thinking about other things. It’s okay if thoughts pop into your head, but when they do, try to refocus on the activity.
  • Meditation can enhance your focus, enhance clarity, and quiet your mind. As you exercise your brain’s ability to focus, it will become stronger.
  • Visualization helps train your brain. Mentally rehearsing an action can make it more likely to happen and easier for you to do it when it does happen.
  • Start easy. Try meditating for just 5m daily to start. Then build up to 10 or 20m. It’s exercise for your brain, and like physical training, anyone can get better and do more of it with practice.
  • Consider beginning with guided meditation. There are a few free apps to start you on your way. Insight Timer or Headspace are both popular options with free guided options to start. I like Insight Timer, because it also has a good, customizable timer function.
  • Consider using a timer. As you start training, you may want to set a bell to ring every few minutes to remind you to bring your focus back, and a bell to conclude the session.
  • The goal is to be mindful, present, and intentional. The goal is not the specific act of meditation. Meditation is the practice that helps empower you to be more focused, mindful, and intentional. It enhances awareness of thoughts and feelings that are always coming into your awareness, so that you can skillfully work with your brain to refocus your attention, be creative, think critically, and be compassionate… hopefully all of the time, and not just during meditation.
  • It starts with awareness. As you become more aware of your brain’s activity and attention, you can practice calming it and redirecting your attention more effectively.
  • Being more mindful can improve our training and racing, our professional lives, our creative activities, our relationships, and improve our lives generally… just like physical exercise.
  • Meditation and visualization can enhance our ability to be mindful in all situations and more skillfully direct attention, remain calm, and act intentionally.

The specifics of different meditation practices vary, but it’s well worth trying and experimenting to find the kind of practice that works best for you. If you don’t already, try practicing with a consistent and deliberate approach for at least a month. Do this the same way that you would want to practice a new diet or training program for a while before understanding some of what the effects are for you. If anything, meditation is just that: a training system for your brain. It affects how your brain operates and has a substantial affect on the thoughts and feelings that your brain may focus on in the future. It will enhance your focus and help you direct it more intentionally.

I don’t think it’s worth our time here to list studies that show the benefits of meditation or to list some of the many professional athletes, hedge-fund managers, or leaders who practice meditation or visualization. That could take a while. If you want to look into that, please do. I’m sure you’ll have fun. At the moment, we’ll run on the assumption that it can help us out, knowing that there’s a lot of studies and people supporting that conclusion….

People have been practicing various forms of meditation for thousands of years, but if anything, it’s more important than ever before in human history to have a mindfulness practice. Technologies we’ve created actively condition our brains in counter-productive ways. Our phones, news apps, social media platforms actively demolish our ability to focus, bombard us with random thoughts and distractions, and often aim to deliberately fire up the emotional center of our brain. This steals our attention and shuts down our capacity for creativity and critical thinking, leaving us unfocused and often unhappy, even leading to chronic stress and depression.

Do you want to focus on your work? Are you in the middle of a workout? What if your phone beeps or vibrates? What if you open up xyz social media? Pretty soon you may have just lost 5, 10, or 30 minutes going down a rabbit hole of news stories, Instagram photos, Facebook posts, tweets, and Wikipedia articles… all of which you didn’t see coming and probably didn’t want. It’s like candy or potato chips for your brain. A part of your brain soaks it up (your amygdala) while your higher brain (pre-frontal cortex) is taken along for the ride against your will. Social media platforms are designed to grab your attention and keep you on the platform as long as possible.

This is incredibly important. If you unintentionally lose just 5 minutes to your phone just twice a day, that’s 60 hours this year of lost attention, thinking, creativity, and positive life experience.

Imagine losing 15 minutes 4 times a day to your phone or social media… that’s 365 hours each year… over 45 8-hour workdays… That’s 9 full work-weeks in one year alone! Holy s#*t! I could have had a ton of quality time with my partner! I could have taken a massive vacation! I could have trained so much more! Bike toured across the country! Learned to play the piano! Learned Mandarin! Gone to Ecuador… for two months!!! Assuming that you are awake and alert 16 hours per day, over 50 years, that is 1140 waking days… over 3 full years of your waking life that could be lost to the black-holes known as facebook, instagram, twitter, netflix, and youtube… assuming you’re only losing 1 hour a day!

If we can train our brains to become better focused and less distracted, then we may save a lot of time and be able to use that time and brainspace for doing and experiencing more of the things that are important to us. If we can focus more intently, then we will get more out of our experience of life because we’re actually present while it is happening.

When training or racing, if your mind isn’t focused, then you won’t fully tune in to your body and get the most out of it. In races, you won’t be able to make the most skilled tactical decisions. Being distracted or stressed about work emails, upcoming meetings, or what upset you earlier in the day won’t help you do your workout well or race effectively, and will erode your capacity to perform. If you experience stress and worry on an ongoing basis, then your recovery and immune system function will be diminished, and your body won’t be able to reach its potential.

Let’s train our brains to focus better! Let’s practice observing our thoughts and feelings, deliberately redirecting our attention, and intentionally focusing our attention on what matters to us.

Imagine taking just 10m a day away from things that distract us, and imagine building mental skill to direct our attention, focusing creatively and critically on the things that matter most to us. Imagine being present and focused for all of the fun and interesting experiences we have in life.