Sleep is the most powerful free tool we’ve got – so why do so many of us struggle with it? Here’s a reminder of why sleep is so good for health and performance – and how to get more of it.
The physical benefits of sleep
Sleep doesn’t just feel great because you’re well rested. Sleep actually helps your body repair, build, grow, and run optimally. During unbroken sleep, your sympathetic nervous system relaxes and your blood pressure regulates, your body replaces cells and releases proteins that fight infection.
Sleep has a huge impact on your hormones, too, including the stress hormones cortisol, the appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin, and human growth hormone. (1) It’s no surprise people who sleep better tend to be healthier, leaner, and less prone to short-term illnesses and injury.
How much sleep is enough?
The magic number seems to be 7-9 hours of restful sleep (it doesn’t count if you’re just in bed but still scrolling Insta). Sleep isn’t linear, in fact we pass through several cycles of REM sleep throughout the night. These average out at 90 minutes per cycle but can range from 60-110 minutes.
The main thing to note is that consistently broken sleep impacts these important REM cycles, so it’s important to aim for a long period of sleep. Try to get to bed by 11pm, as the sleep you get before midnight is especially important for brain health. (2)
Sleep for training performance
It’s no secret that good sleep leads to more energy and focus in training. It will also keep your brain sharp and your body moving well, which reduces your risk of injuries. A well-rested athlete has faster reaction times, makes fewer mistakes, and can judge distance and depth more accurately.
Start sleeping well and you’ll be more likely to stick to your programming and train with intensity, and you’ll recover better between sessions. Good sleep will even help you make healthier food choices.
7 ways to sleep better
There are so many simple things we can all do to sleep better, but for some reason it’s easier to ignore them. Take this as a reminder to revisit your “sleep hygiene”.
1 Get 7-9 hours sleep a night and aim to be asleep before midnight
2 Use an app like Calm or Headspace to help you wind down
3 Don’t take your phone (or any other screen) into the bedroom
4 Come off screens for 45 minutes before bed – the blue light messes with sleep
5 Keep your bedroom as dark as possible, blocking outside lights and covering any lights in the room
6 Make your bedroom calm, peaceful, and free from clutter
7 Wind down for 30 minutes before bed by dimming light in the house, stretching, relaxing, reading etc
How do athletes sleep?
If you want to take your sleep habits to the next level, start sleeping like the elite. Develop a sleep routine with a fixed bedtime, wind-down routine and wake up time (even on days off). Consider mastering the art of 20-minute powernaps during the day, especially on rest days or during deload weeks. Invest in quality bedding for temperature control, and a good mattress. Black out blinds can be a gamechanger too.
Cut caffeine for at least 8 hours before bedtime (including caffeine in sports drinks) and pay attention to how food affects your sleep quality.
Track your sleep, either using a smart device or just noting it down when you wake up. Try tracking bedtime, sleep duration, perceived sleep quality, and how you feel the next day.