By: Austin Hunt
Sleep is a common afterthought in the world of strength & conditioning. However, it may be the KEY to unlocking your fitness goals.
What are the benefits of improved sleep?
- Muscle Recovery: while sleeping, your body is busy repairing muscle tissue and promoting muscle growth. The better the quality of sleep, the faster your recovery, allowing you to hit the gym more often and with greater intensity!
- Stress Management & Mood: a lack of sleep can result in impatience, irritability and an inability to concentrate. Reduce the stress of daily life and wake up feeling refreshed!
- Metabolism & Weight Control: lack of sleep interferes with your body’s cortisol production – affecting hunger and appetite. If you want to gain muscle or lose fat, improving sleep will help prevent unnecessary weight gain and maintain a healthy metabolism.
- Improved Mental & Physical Performance: mental and physical fatigue can leave you feeling dazed and unmotivated in the gym. A sound sleeping routine increases mental clarity and physical performance!
Step 1. Develop a Routine
Having a routine before bed will dramatically enhance the quality of your sleep.
Perform a Relaxing Activity: the list is endless here as everybody will have different activities they find relaxing. My top three relaxing activities include taking a shower or bath, reading, and listening to a podcast/bedtime playlist.
I enjoy reading right before bed, whether it’s for personal development or fiction, but beware of the books that are too good to put down! Either start reading them earlier or know when to stop.
Lose the Technology: turn off your TV, cellphone, laptop, etc. These are all distractions that keep your brain from “shutting down” at night.
You don’t need to read your friend’s latest tweet about their adorable pet dog Puddles or watch the latest episode of Storage Wars right before bed.
If you can’t turn everything off, designate another room to use these devices. Teach your body that the bedroom is a quiet oasis in which you find rest, not a carnival surrounded by bright lights and loud noises.
Go to Bed and Wake Up at the Same Time: When you go to bed late one night, early the next and then wake-up in the morning to the sound of your alarm, you are seriously messing with your body’s hormones.
Even with proper training and nutrition, those few nights during the week(end) that you decide to stay out late and party may be enough to interrupt your progress. That’s the unfortunate reality.
If you’re in this situation, ask yourself: How bad do I really want it?
Step 2. Optimize the Environment
Consider the room temperature, darkness, noise level and cleanliness of your bedroom:
Make Your Room as Dark as Possible (ie. pitch black): light that reaches your skin, whether natural or artificial, is read by the pineal gland resulting in the suppression of melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that affects the circadian rhythm of several biological functions, including your sleep/wake cycle.
Use heavy curtains to block light from windows and cover digital displays (ie. alarm clocks, stereos, night-lights, etc.) to help boost your melatonin production at night! THINK CAVE.
Let Cool Air Circulate: open a window or turn on a fan. You sleep more peacefully in a cool environment than in a hot one.
Listen to White Noise: any soothing sound that helps you to relax — the buzz of your fan, the patter of rain or the sound of the city are examples. Lately, I’ve enjoyed listening to RainyMood along with this song by Marconi Union (voted the most relaxing song of all time according to a study done in the UK).
Clean Your Bed! This one is a no-brainer. Few things are more uncomfortable than sleeping in a dirty bed.
The last thing you want is to be worried about what might be lurking in or around your bed while you sleep. Make crawling under your sheets something you look forward to, not something you avoid.
Step 3. Practice Relaxation
Enhance the quality of your sleep with relaxation techniques – this is especially important for those with difficulty falling (or staying) asleep.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: lie on your back, close your eyes, and beginning with your feet, contract and relax all of your muscles. For example, flex your feet for 5 seconds, relax for 5 seconds, flex your calves for 5 seconds, relax for 5 seconds, flex your quads for 5 seconds, relax for 5 seconds, and so on.
Make sure to emphasize the muscles in the hand and face – areas that tend to store a lot of tension.
Deep, Diaphragmatic Breathing: take in a deep breath, fill your belly with air, hold for a second and breathe out slowly. Repeat.
Felt good didn’t it? This is how babies breathe. Unfortunately, as we travel through life we accumulate stress (physical, mental or otherwise) and before long our breathing patterns change, ultimately affecting our physical state. Breathing becomes rapid and shallow (chest breathing), stimulating the sympathetic nervous system (ie. flight or flight response) thus producing anxiety, body tension and fatigue.
Practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing not only before bed but throughout the day until it’s second nature. As Mike Robertson says, “breathing is a vital component of movement and life”.
Visualization: close your eyes and imagine a place or activity that’s peaceful and calming. Focus on how this makes you feel.
To get the most out of visualization, concentrate on engaging all of your senses: sight, touch, taste, sound and smell. The more realistic and detailed you can make it, the better.
Another form of visualization, perhaps less relaxing but in my mind much more rewarding, involves visualizing your goals. Close your eyes and imagine yourself realizing your ambitions – whether it’s something you want to achieve, somewhere you want to live or someone you want to become. Imagine the steps you will take to reach your goal, engage all of your senses and feel the satisfaction of having already achieved it.
Visualization works for elite athletes and performers, there’s no reason it can’t work for you!
Use the techniques mentioned above to improve the quality of your sleep as well as the quality of your life.
If you have anything to add, comment below! What’s your pre-bed routine like? Your sleeping environment?
- Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival by T.S. Wiley
- Sleep 101 by Mike Robertson
- A Breath of Fresh Air: Breathing 101 by Patrick Ward
- How to Sleep Better: Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Austin is a 2nd year Kinesiology student at the University of Waterloo with a passion for fitness, nutrition and lifestyle design. He strives to make himself and those around him fitter, healthier and happier individuals through continuing education and real-world experience. Contact Austin via email or add him on Facebook.