As athletes we are all eager to push ourselves to our limits on our hard training days and races. So many of us turn to compression socks, specialized recovery drinks, Normatec “space legs” and even running electrical current through our muscles to stimulate them and promote recovery. All of these constitute “marginal gains” style approaches: they offer to enhance recovery some small percentage, in exchange, of course, for no small expense. But there’s a simpler way! It’s more effective, 100% natural, and totally free: it’s sleep.

 The physiological and psychological benefits of sleep are hard to overstate. Getting enough sleep has profound effects on mood, memory, learning, immune system function, recovery from and adaptation to training, as well as athletic performance itself. And yet more than 40% of Americans get less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night ( “I don’t need that much sleep,” Or “I do fine on less sleep!” You might protest. Well you’re probably wrong. It’s more  likely that you’ve just grown used to coping with the effects of chronic sleep debt. Especially for athletes who are taxing their bodies through regular training and pushing themselves to get fitter, stronger, and faster, your body desperately needs that sleep in order to properly and fully adapt to that killer VO2 Max workout you just did.

How to get better sleep:

1. Find a drawer, cupboard or closet somewhere outside your bedroom. Put your phone, tablet, laptop or any electronic device you might be tempted to look at in the hour or so before you want to go to sleep in said drawer, cupboard or closet. Take these devices and shun them from the bedroom. Perhaps the single best thing we can do to improve the quality of sleep in this modern world is to avoid bringing these blue-light emitting electronic devices into our bedrooms to stare at as they interfere with our circadian rhythm and the natural release of melatonin in the brain, helping us fall asleep.

2. Create a pre-sleep routine of “powering down” an hour or so before you want to go to sleep. Have a set time you want to try to be asleep by each night, and then map out a series of behaviors you can do to transition yourself away from being engaged with work or social media or television, and focus on more relaxing activities in preparation for sleep. You might find it helpful to take a shower, read a book, drink some herbal tea, or all of the above. The key is to try different things out and find out what works for you, then do it consistently.

3. We all love our coffee, but be careful about how late in the day you enjoy that last cup (or anything with caffeine in it). A study done at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at the Henry Ford Hospital found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before sleep still had a significant impact on sleep (Drake C; Roehrs T; Shambroom J; Roth T. Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. J Clin Sleep Med 2013;9(11)). Try to limit your coffee and caffeine intake to the morning, with 2 o’clock being a sort of latest limit.

4. Seriously, cut out the screen time before bed (and especially cut it out in bed). Even if you use a blue light filter on your phone, laptop or tablet, the stimulation of browsing Facebook, Twitter or watching a show on Netflix is not exactly the sort of relaxation-promoting behavior that is going to get to sleep more quickly and sleep well.  

We put so much effort into our workouts, planning them, preparing for them, executing them, so try and put the same kind of intention into how you sleep. After all, that’s the best way to get the most out of those hard workout days, by promoting the right kind of growth and adaptations to the stress of training.