Meet the experts – sleeping for performance

Meet the experts – sleeping for performance

How much does sleep affect your athletic performance? When it comes to sleep, it’s not just quantity that matters – it’s quality. Experiment with the following tips to find the ones that work best to improve your sleep and performance. Our experts Gymbox yoga instructor Henrietta Greene and VPT Roman Caban show us what we can do to wake up feeling more productive, mentally sharp, emotionally balanced, and full of energy – all day long.

How much sleep?

It's a tough call, but try and block out at least nine hours a day for sleep – ideally 10 hours. You might not actually sleep that long, but that should be your goal.

Turn off

Darkness promotes the release of melatonin, whilst light inhibits it. So not only should you block out all external light from your bedroom, but it also means no computer (or similar), phone or TV, if possible, as long as 2 hours before bed. The world will still be there and buzzing when you wake up, so resist the urge to stay tuned in. Say no to late-night television. Be smart about e-readers. Devices that are backlit, such as the Kindle Fire or the iPad, are more disruptive than e-readers that don’t have their own light source – or good old-fashioned books. Tap out. And if that can be before 10pm, all the better – research has shown that melatonin levels peak between 12am and 1am, so aim to have the body and mind settled and asleep well before then. It can take up to 10 weeks to break deeply ingrained habits, so be patient – at the end of it all is a better, brighter you. When it’s time to sleep, make sure the room is dark. Use heavy curtains or shades to block light from windows, or try a sleep mask. Also consider covering up electronics that emit light.

We are what we eat

And if that’s caffeine, that makes you wired. It can take up to five hours for caffeine levels in the body to halve, and that’s assuming your body can metabolise caffeine perfectly well. Watch what you drink and eat after 3pm: coffee, tea (including matcha), protein shakes, energy bars, dark chocolate and fizzy drinks all contain caffeine.

Avoid big meals at night. Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening, and avoid heavy, rich foods within two hours of bed. Spicy or acidic foods can cause stomach trouble and heartburn.

Avoid alcohol before bed. While a nightcap may help you relax, it interferes with your sleep cycle once you’re out. Avoid drinking too many liquids in the evening. Drinking lots of fluids may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night.

Sugary foods should be kept to a minimum too, not, as many believe, because sugar turns us into hyperactive children, but instead because spikes in blood sugar levels inhibit melatonin, the hormone directly related to sleep. So keep sweet treats, fresh and dried fruit, and alcohol to a minimum before bed.

Foods that promote sleep are those that help the adrenal glands, which are responsible for triggering the release of melatonin. Leafy green vegetables are packed full of minerals that support adrenal function. Complex carbohydrates (brown rice, legumes, whole grains) and lean proteins also support adrenal function without causing spikes in blood sugar levels.

Support your body's natural rhythms

Getting in sync with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, is one of the most important strategies for sleeping better. If you keep a regular sleep-wake schedule you’ll feel much more refreshed and energised than if you sleep the same number of hours at different times, even if you only alter your sleep schedule by an hour or two.

Avoid sleeping in, even on weekends

The more your weekend/weekday sleep schedules differ, the worse jetlag-like symptoms you’ll experience. This allows you to pay off your sleep debt without disturbing your natural sleep-wake rhythm.

Train regularly

Regular exercise also improves the symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnea and increases the amount of time you spend in the deep, restorative stages of sleep. Deep sleep is the most important because our body and mind can relieve all tensions. That the desired state when your body is healing, recovering, getting stronger and your muscles are growing. Exercise speeds up your metabolism, elevates body temperature, and stimulates hormones such as cortisol. This isn’t a problem if you’re exercising in the morning or afternoon, but too close to bed and it can interfere with sleep.

Relaxation techniques to rest the active mind

If your body is in a state of rest, it’s possible for your muscles and other parts of your body to regenerate even if you're not asleep. This is not possible for your brain, which stays in a state of alertness the entire time you are awake. Your brain can’t refresh itself through ordinary sleep, either. You must reach certain stages of sleep before your brain can even begin to get the rest that it needs. If you consistently don’t get enough sleep, and give your brain enough time to recharge itself, you’re doing a colossal amount of damage to yourself. Sleep deprived brains experience impaired memory function, an inability to concentrate, irritability, and coordination difficulties. The main goal is to get to the deep sleep. When body can get the most benefits, recover and recharge. Wind down and clear your head. Practicing relaxation techniques before bed is a great way to wind down, calm the mind, and prepare for sleep, so try:

Deep breathing. Close your eyes and take deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last.

Progressive muscle relaxation. Starting with your toes, tense all the muscles as tightly as you can, then completely relax. Work your way up to the top of your head.

Visualising a peaceful, restful place. Close your eyes and imagine a place that’s calming and peaceful. Concentrate on how relaxed this place makes you feel.

Create a “toolbox” of relaxing bedtime rituals to help you unwind before sleep. For example: Read a book, take a warm bath (with Epsom salt or magnesium sulphate if possible!) or listen to soft music.