How to get a great night’s sleep
With the current global health crisis understandably causing anxiety for many athletes around the world, it’s especially important that we do what we can to improve our well-being, and sleep is a vital part of that. Here, sleep specialist Professor Jim Horne from Loughborough University shares some insights into what makes for a good night’s sleep, and offers some simple and practical advice to help you be at your best every day – and night.
- Sleep is an incredibly important part of our lives, and enhancing your sleep quality is key to improving your well–being.
- Professor Jim Horne is a sleep expert at Loughborough University in the UK.
- He offers some practical and easy–to–implement tips for better sleep, gathered from years of research.
1. Quality over quantity
Many people insist on needing seven or eight hours of sleep a night, but really this is a bit foolish. We are focusing too much on the length of sleep rather than its quality. For one thing, sleep is made up of various components. If I was a dietician, for example, and I said to you, “It doesn’t matter what food is on your plate, just weigh it,” you’d laugh at me. Additionally, people vary in the amount of sleep they actually need. A one–size–fits–all approach is not helpful. Judging sleep on its length is quite a crude way of measuring sleep quality.
2. Bedtime, not screen time
Electronic devices are an issue. We know that if you are exposed to bright light before going to bed, particularly from a bright screen, it can suppress your body clock’s mechanism for helping you get to sleep. But the other thing, and one that’s often overlooked, is that people grab their mobile phone or tablet, they get into bed and start catching up with their social media pages, and then suddenly an email comes through. Now you’re thinking: “I must catch up with that, and someone’s done this and that,” and you get all worked up and you can’t unwind. It’s a good idea to move these electronic devices away from the bed and forget about them.
3. If you’re going to nap, do it right
The timing of sleep is so important. Your body clock governs when you sleep, and when you should ideally wake up. Regularity of sleep, going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time, is actually very important. If you start sleeping at the wrong time of the day for your body clock, then you’ll cause yourself problems. For example, if you have a bad night’s sleep and you take a long nap in the afternoon, which you’re not used to, you wake up feeling groggy, thick–headed and generally pretty awful for a while; that’s a type of jet lag really. If you have a bad night’s sleep and do want to have a nap in the afternoon, keep that nap short – about 20 minutes. This can be quite refreshing. Essentially, if naps are short they can be very beneficial; if they’re too long they’ll be counterproductive.
If naps are short they can be very beneficial; if they’re too long they’ll be counterproductive
4. What’s hot and what’s not
A raised body temperature is something you need to avoid before sleep. The body wants you to cool down prior to sleep and it purposely tries to cool you down; it’s all part of the body clock synchronising itself. Avoid heavy workouts a few hours before bedtime. This is important not only to relax but also to cool down. It will get your adrenaline going as well, which should be avoided anyway. Keep cool, and if you do want to exercise maybe go for a jog in cool evening air.
There’s no harm in having a cool shower. That doesn’t really have much effect on cooling your body down. But we’ve found that getting in a hot bath before bed can be counterproductive. If you do have a hot bath, you should let yourself cool down as fast as you can.
I don’t think nutrition is actually particularly important to sleep in itself. A balanced diet as recommended by your nutritionist is obviously very important, but not necessarily for sleep. Certainly avoid having a large meal before going to bed; and snacking and having irregular evening meals or lunch is not a good idea because of your body clock, as discussed above. Generally speaking, I don’t think you need any special foods to help you sleep.
To find out about what being an athlete means for your sleep, click here.