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.