Athletes know that in order to play at their highest level they need to focus on nutrition, strength training, speed, skill, and staying healthy. An often overlooked part of an athlete’s ability to play at their peak level is sleep quality. About a month ago I was working with a female athlete and I could tell right away that something was not right. I asked her what time she went to sleep the night before and she replied “3 a.m., that is about the time I go to sleep every night.” Keep in mind, the workout we were doing was at 9 a.m. the next day. So, at best, she got 5 to 5 ½ hours of sleep the night before.
Let me start by asking a few questions:
- Are you able to wake up every morning without an alarm clock?
- Do you get outside every day for at least 30 minutes?
- Do you feel more alert in the evening in comparison to how you feel in the morning?
Athletes and weekend warriors are spending millions of dollars every year on supplements to improve their performance to gain the competitive edge that they are looking for. As a coach I support the use of some approved supplements; however, one of the best things you can do for your health and performance is free and most of us don’t take advantage of it.
As a coach, it is my job to constantly monitor how the athletes I work with are feeling. On a daily basis I will talk to them about their sleep patterns. I will often ask questions like:
- What time did you fall asleep last night?
- What was the quality of your sleep like?
- How did you feel when you woke up today?
Experts contend people who are not getting adequate sleep are in perpetual jet lag. Reaction times as well as body composition are directly linked to the quality and the amount of sleep that we get in a daily basis. As an athlete, reaction time and body composition are extremely important to your game day performance. If either of these two things are off, your performance is going to suffer.
A comment that I often hear from people is “I can’t fall asleep before midnight” or “I wake up every night at 3 a.m. and can’t fall back to sleep." If this is happening to you, then your athletic performance as well as how you function the next day is going to suffer.
Our body cares about one thing and that is survival. If we develop poor sleep habits our body will slow down and conserve energy. Fat stores in our body will increase making it harder to lose body fat. Our metabolic system will slow down in order to meet the lack of sleep demands. Our bodies will age faster and our sympathetic nervous system will start to increase which will have a hormonal effect on our body that we do not want.
The good news is that we can reverse all of the negative effects of poor sleep with some simple changes to our lifestyle. With the addition of technology our minds are always on alert and our circadian rhythm is out of balance. People are glued to their phones as well as their computers. By doing this we may be contributing to an unhealthy lifestyle.
Here are 15 simple solutions to improving your sleep patterns:
- The amount of light we get every day from the sun has a dramatic effect on your sleep. Make it a point to get outside for at least 30 minutes every day. First thing in the morning when the sun comes up get outside for a couple of minutes and let the sun hit your face. This will start your circadian rhythm.
- Reduce the amount of caffeine you consume after 2 p.m.
- Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink daily.
- Instead of staying up late to watch TV, tape the show or watch online. With things like Netflix there is no reason to stay up late to watch a show.
- Exercise during the day and if possible, exercise outside.
- As the day goes on, reduce the amount of time that you spend in from of a computer screen. The light from the screen tells the brain that you should be awake so reduce the amount of time in front of the screen.
- When you go to bed don’t bring your computer or cell phone into bed with you. This will stimulate a response in your brain and will throw off your timing.
- Take a warm shower or bath before bed. Also, if you add Epson salt to the water this will have a calming effect on your body due to the addition of magnesium.
- Make the room as dark as possible.
- Turn off as many electronics as possible near your bed. Light can penetrate our eyelids which reduces melatonin (Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland and controls the quality of your sleep).
- Change the light on your computer. As the day goes on there are programs that can dim the screen to match the time of the day.
- Make it a point to spend seven to eight hours in bed. If you have to wake up at 6 a.m., you need to be in bed by 10 p.m.
- Eat your last big meal approximately three hours before you plan to go to sleep. Growth hormone is released in the evening and if your digestion has to work overtime this may affect the quality of your sleep.
- Make your room as cool as possible. This time of year is fantastic sleeping weather. Keep the room around 65 degrees.
- As you get closer to bedtime start to dim the lights. Instead of leaving all of your lights on at 7 p.m. start to turn off certain lights and dim others.
Athletes need to make fast decisions. If their ability to “think fast and react” is compromised their performance will suffer. I’m sorry to say that I think sleep habits for people will continue to suffer and people will continue to lower their immune system. If you want to stay ahead of the game and improve your performance you have a choice and the simple solution is to improve your sleep quality.
Kevin Miller is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Philadelphia Union. He is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and has been working with the Union since their inaugural 2010 season. Check out Kevin's Instagram: @KevinMillerTraining
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