In a previous post I talked about the importance of getting quality sleep during your marathon training.
If you have not read this post or heard the accompanying podcast episode, the main take-a-way is this: Sleep has a huge impact on your athletic performance!
Now I want to give you nine tips on how to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep so you can be a stronger, happier runner.
Nine Tips For Improving Your Sleep
- Dial in your ideal sleep. Many sleep experts talk about figuring out how much sleep you need for optimum health and concentration. Once you have a figure of how much sleep you need you can work toward adapting your schedule and environment to try and reach your sleep goals. The best way to gauge how much sleep you need is to go to bed at the same time every night and then wake up on your own, without the aid of an alarm clock.
To calculate the perfect amount for you, keep your wake-up time the same, but go to bed an hour earlier for the next four days. If you’re still sleepy in the morning go to bed 30 minutes earlier the next night. If you can’t fall asleep easily then go to bed 15 minutes later. Experiment until you wake up refreshed.
I’m pretty scheduled with my sleep. I’m almost always in bed by 10:30 (unless Trevor talks me into watching a movie with him) and fall asleep immediately. Then I naturally wake up around 5:30am. Some nights I will feel more tired and have been known to go to bed at 9pm. I definitely don’t have an exciting night life.
- Evaluate your Diet: A study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research in 2011 compared how sleep quality was affected by four different diets: a high protein diet, a high fat diet, a high carbohydrate diet, and a control diet. Results indicated that the diets higher in protein resulted in fewer wakeful episodes during night-time sleep. The higher carbohydrate diet was linked to much shorter periods of restful sleep. (6)
- There are some things that you want to avoid to encourage quality sleep. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine late in the day. This includes tea, coffee, soda, chocolate and some pain medications. Although alcohol may make you feel drowsy in the beginning it actually increases the number of nighttime awakenings and generally decreases the quality of sleep. It is best to limit alcohol and avoid drinking within three hours of bedtime.
- Eating a heavy meal right before bedtime or items with lots of salt (like popcorn) will often lead to sleep disturbances. It’s best to finish eating 2-3 hours before bedtime. If you’re hungry before bed try to eat something easily digestible like a piece of fruit or a sugar-free protein drink. Or have a medium glass of water or herbal tea.
- Bedtime routine– Developing an effective bedtime routine is important for sleep. Limit the use of all electronics 1-2 hours before bedtime. This includes a smart phone, computer, tablet, e-reader and television. The high intensity light emitted by these devices stimulates the brain and tells the body that it should be awake. Instead of these bright lights, keep the lights low around the house in the evening. Try to go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Find ways to relax before bed. This may include some easy yoga or stretching, meditation or prayer, a warm bath, or some light reading.
- Sleep environment- Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. Experts suggest keeping all electronics out of the room so that you’re not tempted to use them while in bed. Keep your bedroom dark (use light blocking curtains or an eye mask if necessary). Keep the temperature between 60-72 degrees and wear light and comfortable pajamas. If you’re bothered by environmental noise then either ear plugs, a fan or a sound machine can be very helpful. Make sure you have a comfortable mattress and pillow (most have a life-span of around 10 years or less). A body pillow can also help you stay in a comfortable position with less tossing and turning. If pets or children disrupt your sleep it’s best to keep them out of the bedroom. Helping kids develop good sleeping habits early on will benefit them the rest of their lives.
- Time your exercise– Studies show that those who exercise daily enjoy the best sleep. But it’s ideal to allow 3 hours between strenuous exercise and the time you go to bed for optimum sleep. Try to do your running as early in the day as possible, early evening at the latest. Doing some light yoga or stretching before bed can be a great way to open up tight areas, wind down and relax.
- Don’t stress out– If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes it’s best to get out of bed, go to a quiet and low-light room and do another relaxing activity until you get tired. If you awaken at night and can’t get back to sleep do the same thing. Try to evaluate why you’re waking up. It could be outside noise, the temperature, having to use the bathroom or anxiety. If you have trouble calming your mind down before bedtime keep a notebook by the side of your bed and write everything down you’re thinking. We often keep worries in our head because we’re afraid of forgetting something. Writing it down allows your mind to release the worry.
- Consider sleep enhancing supplements– There are some safe supplements that may improve your sleep. Chamomile tea has been used for thousands of years. Melatonin is a natural hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Studies show that melatonin not only helps some people fall asleep but also enhances the quality of sleep. Valerian root has been used as a sedative and to help with anxiety for over 2,000 years. Kava is a member of the pepper family and has been found to be useful in some people with anxiety related sleep problems. (11) Taking a magnesium supplement at night can also help reduce stress and promote sleep. Just make sure that you’re not taking any medications that would interact with these supplements.
- Personal Sleep Monitors– There are a variety of personal sleep device monitors and apps that claim to be able to help you track your sleep. Some of these include Jawbone Up, Polar Loop, Fit Bit Flex, 24/7, Basis Track, Larklife and the Body Media armband. Most of these devices have movement trackers called accelerometers. They track your daytime steps as well as track arm movement at night which can be an indicator of sleep patterns. Then you upload the data and can see patterns emerging in your sleep. Most of these wearable sleep trackers cost anywhere from $100-300. Reviews are mixed so be sure and do some research before investing in one. Below is a good review that compares the results of a sleep study done in a lab with some of these devices (source #12).
- Consult a health care professional if you have ongoing sleep problems. Good sleep is too important to overlook. Don’t be afraid to get help if you chronically have trouble sleeping.
Hopefully this post has helped you realize the importance of sleep for your health and well-being. Improving the quality and quantity of your sleep will go a long way to enhancing your training and performance. Evaluate your sleep habits and make enhancing your sleep a priority.
You’ll be healthier and happier.