Be a champion of sleep  

Dr Michael Grandner, Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, discusses sleep and COVID-19, and explains how creating and maintaining good habits when it comes to sleep can have a positive effect on your mental well-being during this time of uncertainty.  

  • Dr Michael Grandner is an expert on sleep and its impact on well-being and performance.  
  • Dr Grandner has given athletes his best general sleeping tips before, but has noticed some new patterns and disruptions in the wake of COVID-19. 
  • He advises you to create a rhythm, get plenty of light and wind down before bed to maintain a healthy level of sleep during this difficult time.  

In terms of sleep and COVID-19, there are a few different patterns that I’m noticing, and some things are going on that are disrupting people.   

First, a lot of you wake up very, very early to train usually, and now if you’re stuck at home you’re not waking up very early. In some ways this could be a good thing, because for a lot of athletes – especially younger adults and adolescents – your body clock wants you to sleep in a little bit later.   

Second, difficulty falling asleepand waking up during the night and having trouble getting back to sleep, is something I’m hearing a lot from a lot of people. 

A third thing that’s happening to people’s sleep is dysregulation. This is when your clock starts getting thrown off because what used to be a somewhat regular rhythm is now a much more irregular rhythm – and in some people it’s no rhythm, where your whole routine is sort of blown up. It’s like when you say: “Why am I so tired? I haven’t done anything.   

Create your rhythm 

I think one of the things that you can do is create a routine for yourself that matches with your own body. 

Get some morning light, and if it’s safe to go for a walk outside then get some activity outside. The sunlight itself helps engage these rhythms, and when you combine light exposure for 15 to 60 minutes in the morning with some sort of physical activity – whether it’s running, walking or something else – that combination of movement and light helps set your rhythm for the day, and can help count out that rhythm for the day.   

Then you have something that you’re doing in the middle of the day, and in the evening you tell your body that it’s wind-down time. So start turning the lights down an hour or so before you’re actually planning on going to bed, start disconnecting from digital and social media, and start giving your mind and body the space it takes to wind down and relax.   

Right now, the pattern is disrupted and your body is looking for a pattern. Feed it a pattern that it can follow, and then build your day around that.  

Right now, the pattern is disrupted and your body is looking for a pattern. Feed it a pattern that it can follow, and then build your day around that.  

How to wind down 

If you’re having trouble winding down, what I would do is sit quietly, breathe, close your eyes and just do a quick body scan. 

Start with your toes, work your way up from your legs to your hips and to your stomach, back, chest and shoulders, from your hands up to your arms and elbows, and then from your neck to your chin and face. Take stock of all your stress and tension, because you may be holding stress in your body without even realising itcommon places are your chinyour forehead or your hands.   

Winding down time is not the time to solve your problems, and that’s okay. The problems will still be there tomorrow if they are important; if they’re unimportant, then they won’t.  The most helpful thing you can do is make a note to deal with it tomorrow, maybe even schedule it at a certain time.   

Maintain a healthy eating pattern 

Nutrition and sleep are very closely intertwined, partially because they’re similar. They’re both fundamental parts of how our physiology works and they both have their fingers in pretty much every system in the body.   

Every cell gets nutrition and every cell has these rhythms – and they interact with each other. For example, people who have a healthier diet tend to sleep better. People who eat too much late at night tend not to sleep as well. People who have more calorie-dense diets and people who stay up late will start craving extra calories at night. They will start gaining weight and having dysregulated metabolism, because what they’re eating is changing what time it is because it’s disrupting the rhythm.   

If you maintain an overall healthy diet where your body is working closer to the way it’s built, you’re going to sleep a little bit better.   

Protect yourself against conditioned arousal 

One of the main pathways that leads from a little bit of stress to insomnia and other mental health issues is something called conditioned arousal.  

What this means is that simply by losing sleep, you spend a lot of time in bed awake. If you have a hard time falling asleep and you stay in bed – especially if it’s for more than half an hour at a time – then without realising it, you’re training yourself to learn that the bed is sometimes a place for sleep and often a place for being awake. 

The best thing you can do is break the cycle, and if you’re going to be awake anyway then do it out of bed. Even if you end up sleeping a little less tonight, you’re protecting yourself against developing insomnia later on. 

Do athletes need more sleep than others? Do athletes suffer disproportionately from sleeping problems? Sleep specialist Iulania Hartescu answers these questions and more in this article